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Review: Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation, by Laura Kipnis

Review by Frank G. Karioris

Notes from an Ongoing Man

Last was not, to be fair, a great year for Laura Kipnis – or, from another perspective, it was an elegantly apt year for the author of How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior (2010). In 2015 Kipnis became an international focus for discussions about sex & the academy, and sex in the academy. Northwestern University in Chicago, her employer, created a new rule that stated that student-faculty relationships were not permitted, regardless of any other factors. In response, Kipnis wrote a piece article for The Chronicle of Higher Education (2015) suggesting that part of the college experience is relations between faculty and students. This created an outrage, with people on both sides of the argument writing lengthy diatribes about the matter, and a student filing a Title IX suit against Kipnis. Title IX is a piece of legislation that requires universities to support the equal rights of students based, primarily, on gender and sexuality. These events take place as universities around the USA change policies related to students, student safety, and – in many ways – recreate a form of in loco parentis (in place of the parents) from the early days of US university life; one that particularly works through the trope of the ‘young girl’ in need of protection (Doyle 2015).

Men is about far more than just Kipnis’s scandal – though the book is certainly the embodiment of the canary falling to the mineshaft floor. In fact, another review of Men similarly starts with a discussion of the scandal (Elias 2015). It is crucial, before moving too far afield, to situate just slightly the way that she works through the scandal pre-scandal and to note the connections it has with this book and the way that the book – which is, at least titularly, about men – reflects ideas about how we perceive gender relations more broadly. This is part and parcel of the argument being made throughout the book; not only that, the book preempts the scandal itself and therefore the scandal is a part of the book, its reception, and its overall impact. [End Page 1]

A Story Told Once; And then Again

In fact, in an almost Žižek or Bauman fashion, Kipnis lifts lines from her own book for the article – published February 27, 2015, while the book was published in November 2014. One such line, which I’d imagine thoroughly stuck in the craw of many, was that “sex – even when not so great or someone got their feelings hurt – fell under the category of experience, not trauma. It wasn’t harmful; it didn’t automatically impede your education; sometimes it even facilitated it” (130) – which is tweaked in the article to: “fell under the category of life experience. It’s not that I didn’t make my share of mistakes, or act stupidly or inchoately, but it was embarrassing, not traumatizing” (Kipnis 2015). It is a small difference, but important nonetheless.

Naomi Wolf famously accused Harold Bloom of sexually harassing her when she was a student – a vignette Kipnis recounts, that concludes with Wolf throwing up in the kitchen after Bloom places his hand on her leg. To which might be added that: “Forget bumbling pathos or social ineptitude – in these accounts, it’s all trauma, all the time” (127).  Again, this line is retold from a Slate article where she acerbically notes “if power comes in more than one guise, you will not hear Wolf discuss it” (Kipnis 2004). Questioning Naomi Wolf’s story, she suggests that there is a lot missing from the narrative – including the fact that power is appealing in some instances – and asks what is to be done, coming to the conclusion that “maybe a more nuanced account of male power would be a place to start” (129).

In coming to a conclusion for the chapter, Kipnis says that many professors (some of whom are assholes) hook up with students, and it “would behoove the student to learn the identifying marks” of these characters “early on, because post-collegiate life is full of them too” (135). In a final return to the return, preempting what would be a much lengthier discussion, Kipnis gives a pithy and tone-neutral footnote that her university has changed policies and disallowed faculty-student (or student-faculty, a crucial difference which might belie how we understand these) relations. As a way of conclusion she reminds us that “students aren’t children” (136) and that we ought to recognize the ways that we might well be turning them back into children.

A focus on Men

This book, unlike a standard academic book, is short on clear, focused arguments about men or masculinity. In fact, one might suggest that it is purposefully so, as Kipnis is seeking not to expound on a theory of masculinity but on specific men and the ways that they enact forms of masculinity that are contradictory, contextual, and concealing. Thus, to the question of what, if any, theory about men and masculinities Kipnis is seeking to elucidate, she gives an early and quick answer: “a dearth of sweeping theories about the differences between the sexes will be found in the pages ahead” (5). Reflecting on her previous work – The Female Thing (2007) – she suggests that Men is a “companion volume” and that “the not-always-salutary ways that men and women figure in each other’s imaginations is a theme in both books” (7). The argument of the book, if one were to suggest that a series of repeated essays whose own title suggests that they are but “notes” [End Page 2] could have a fleshed out argument, is that men – and masculinity – are neither, as Kipnis puts it, a malevolent good nor a diabolical evil.

Throughout the book, Kipnis discusses a “pretty motley lot” (1) of men and masculine figures – to which she adds Andrea Dworkin in the last chapter, a playfully titled chapter ‘Women Who Hate Men’.  Starting the book with Larry Flynt and ending with Andrea Dworkin is fittingly purposeful by Kipnis, as someone who has long defended pornography, and who explicitly says so in the ‘Coda’. In this “motley lot” of men, she covers four basic categories: operators (4), neurotics (4), sex fiends (3), and haters (3). These fourteen men (well, thirteen, as one is Dworkin) are book-ended by a preface (‘Regarding Men’) and a post-script. Kipnis does not describe these categories or really give them much definition, leaving us to think about them as fluid and mingling. These categories are comprised of individuals who themselves most likely would never put each other together as a group. In this way the book’s composition is a bit of bricolage. This does not, though, undermine the interesting (and fun) elements of the book.

While oft fairly understanding of her subjects, Kipnis doesn’t shy away from some potshots as well. Of an author of a Hillary biography, who focused heavily on Hillary’s body, she writes: “having seen a few photos of the author – this is a man who can’t have felt entirely secure about his competitive mettle on this score [attractiveness] either” (185). Kipnis continues, saying “Here we’ve entered the realm of male hysteria, where reason and intellect go to die” (190). It is a no-holds barred opening up of men’s wounds at points, which I’m sure has riled up angry white men somewhere. But it is also what makes it a strong discussion – it does so in such a fashion that one is able simultaneously to feel Kipnis’s justification, the men’s anxiety, and a sense of empathy – a balance not managed well oftentimes.

This is not to say that some of the characters in the book don’t come out a bit worse-for-wear; though it is always the underbelly that she is exposing. In talking about Dworkin, she says, “One is tempted to point out that Dworkin either underestimates or just never noticed the vast range of male vulnerability possible in sex” (202). It is this vulnerability that is discussed throughout the book – though frequently coated with humor and a barb or two.

The theme of sex runs throughout the book – whether it is Dworkin’s disdain for it: “Indeed, she was fond of comparing intercourse – along with its propaganda arm, pornography – to the greatest crimes of the twentieth century” (200); or the types of porn that Hustler prints and false rumors of Larry Flynt’s impotence. A form of conclusion that she comes to in this regard is that “People want to – and frequently do – have sex with each other for murky and self-deceiving reasons, or for clear-eyed reasons that turn out to be mistaken, or a thousand variations on the theme of erroneous judgment” (206). It seems an appropriate statement for someone so caught up in what amounts to a sex scandal sans sex; but it is also a nuanced statement about gender and desire, and the ways that people find to manage these fears, shames, and anxieties.

She convincingly gives us a clear portrait of men and sexual scripts, saying, “if our most intimate moments turn out to be prescripted, well obviously these are anxious encounters: failure hovers, rejection looms” (88). It is this observation that is the most crucial thing to take away from her book. Providing insight into the fact that “we live in complicated times and no one here’s a saint” (148), and the prolific anxiety of masculinity [End Page 3] is a task that she does far more convincingly than some more ‘serious’ and ‘academic’ books.

Gender and Complicated Narratives

For a book so focused on men, it is surprising just how much of the book is really about the author herself – not that this is a bad thing. In fact, what is admirable is that men are never themselves just by themselves, but are always in relation to others: other men, and, more frequently, women. This is important because, as feminism has reminded us for well over forty years, men/women or masculinity/femininity are always relational creations and enactments. For the authors of biographies of Hillary Clinton, Kipnis says “reading these Hillary bios, you feel you’re learning as much about the authors as you do about her, possibly more” (181). In fact, at the root of each chapter is her relationship with this man, or this type of man – “I once dated a gambler semi-briefly (it’s possible there was later some recidivism)” (37).

The overall aim seems to suggest that any thorough study of men and masculinity needs to grapple with the mask that masculinity is, and the way that femininity is wrapped up in much of the discussion of masculinity. One is never in relation simply with other masculine presenting individuals, and as authors we too are part of this puzzle.

The book is an opportunity to think about masculinity and the growing field of Men’s Studies (or Critical Studies of Men and Masculinities). Though it has been around for thirty years (see, for example: Carrigan, Connell & Lee 1985; Kimmel 2012; Connell 2005), masculinity is something that is too often left out of conversations on gender and gender relations. The book acts as a possible lightning rod for scholars on both sides of the aisle to rethink the subject and to begin working through the complexity of masculinities in all their ambiguities. So while Kipnis’s book frequently veers into discussions of gender more generally, it crucially sees the importance of turning the lens onto men and masculinity – something that is both admirable and from which other fields of study could take a cue. The book is valuable for this reason if nothing else to literary studies, romance studies, and the humanities. In coming to a final assessment of the book, it is important to note – particularly as Kipnis is a movie critic and of course understands the importance of aesthetics and the now-clichéd phrase ‘the medium is the message’ – the book itself as an object. This book affirms, time and again, masculinity, from its prose through to its blue cover and dust jacket particularly for the USA where every baby boy is adorned blue from before they are born. It seems that this has not been changed for the paperback version either.

All of which brings us to the question of: “what is the value to someone studying popular romance studies?” To this I can but suggest that its wild, uninhibited articulation of individual characters who themselves are part of a romantic and popular discourse is something to strive for and a writing style that academics themselves might ascribe to. For Kipnis, in this book, the unbearable weight of academia is stifling; and it is here where the discipline (and this journal’s readers) might take a cue. Never one to take herself too seriously, Men allows readers to jaunt along rather than be taken along on a grueling march.  Readers will find themselves laughing throughout, as well as reflecting on the way [End Page 4] that topics keep coming up. The book provides short and entertaining insights into the topic of masculinity, and could certainly be used in a class setting.

As an academic book it is perhaps less useful; Kipnis herself says that she is “actually a bit on the margins, academically speaking” (12, footnote), so I am not sure she would disagree or be offended by that claim. While the book is a wonderful example of hilarity, it is less given to use or inclusion as part of a canon of extant literature on the study of popular romance. Nowhere in the book does it relate itself to a set of literatures, and in this way it posits itself somewhat outside of them. This book will most likely be of greater value to those interested in popular essays – authors such as David Sedaris, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, or Chuck Klosterman – than to those who study primarily popular romance literature. Essays, particularly literary or more popular essays, work to give insights rather than make arguments. In this way, one might suggest that the book – and the essays that comprise it – is not, in fact, an argument but an exposition – in both the sense of exhibition and of writing which expounds on something. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Carrigan, Tim, Connell, Raewyn, and Lee, John. ‘Towards a new sociology of masculinity’. Theory & Society Vol 14, 5 (Sept 1985): 551-604.

Connell, Raewyn. Masculinities. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. Print.

Doyle, Jennifer. Campus Sex, Campus Security. South Pasadina: semiotext(e), 2015.

Elias, Christopher Michael. ‘Book Review: Laura Kipnis: Men: An Ongoing Investigation’. Men & Masculinities Online first (2015): 1-2.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Kipnis, Laura. ‘The Anxiety of (Sexual) Influence’. Slate (2004).

Kipnis, Laura. The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability. London: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.

Kipnis, Laura. How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010. Print.

Kipnis, Laura. ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe’. The Chronicle of Higher Education (2015).

[End Page 6]


Review: Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology, by Jayashree Kamblé

Review by Karin Heiss

Criticism and analysis within the field of popular romance studies have frequently been performed from a feminist or sociological point of view, primarily focusing on the heroine as the central and determining figure for examination – often read as a means to enable the female reader to “satisfy vicariously those psychological needs created in her by a patriarchal culture unable to fulfill them” (Radway 66; see also Roach n.pag., Cohn 6, Makinen 23). Jayashree Kamblé, however, takes a quite different, and therefore refreshingly interesting approach not just to the function of the romance genre, but to how the meaning that makes this genre function as a “sociological record” (22) is semiotically generated and constructed within the romance text. She further explores how far this construction of meaning and its change over the twentieth and twenty-first century are concurrent with larger social transformations in the West, especially the US, the UK, and Canada. This demonstration is achieved by a focus on the figure of the romance novel hero, which has to date not been covered in a book-length study. Even though the title of Kamblé’s text does not hint at this tight focus of her approach – she claims the analysis of the construction of meaning in popular romance fiction in general as its goal – it becomes quite clear in the introductory pages how the frame for the analysis was achieved.

Approach and Definitions

Working with Marxist and Semiotic theory, as can be deduced when Kamblé draws heavily on Weber, Jameson, Marcuse and Bakhtin for central definitions, the first vital element of understanding her claim that “the genre is in the thick of twentieth-century counter-hegemonic movements, from ones contesting capitalism and its wars to ones advocating gay rights and coping with white Protestantism’s cultural influence” (21), is Foucault‘s idea of the episteme (xiii/xiv). This concept refers to a temporal unit that contains specific approaches and ways of making sense of the world and is used to show [End Page 1] “how romance fiction works in this period of history and how the period’s ‘norms and postulates’ function in the genre to create meaning” (xiv). Kamblé isolates four such ways of constructing meaning and traces them through popular romantic fiction by using an organic metaphor and reading the genre as an evolving organism whose DNA-like double helix structure contains novelistic and romantic traits and thus adapts to and also negotiates social transformation within the episteme. Within the context of this genetics analogy, the first fundamental contribution to the discussion of popular romance fiction is an exploration of the implications of the term ‘romance novel’ by understanding the novelistic side of the term through a combination of Bakhtin’s notions of the chronotope and polyglossia (3) and Cohn’s ‘narrated monologue’ as a specific novel trait. The latter allows for “multiple modes of representing consciousness” (8), thus incorporating specific “devices to express interiority” (10) and resulting in “the novel trait of perspectival fluidity inherited by the romance novel genre” (14).

The ‘romance’ in the romance novel is then conceptualized not only in terms of the genealogical generic tradition as it has been, for example in Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), but in its implications of ‘romantic’, “which codes for the traits of the erotic, the desirable, the pleasurable – for what is ‘romantic’ to the reader/apprehender under modernity and postmodernity” (15). Thus, the function of the novel to adapt and express interiority abets the development and incorporation of changing notions of the romantic (i.e. acceptable as desirable) as specific to the figure of the romance hero in the genre. This allows Kamblé to focus on “the set of conditions that allow the story to be ‘romantic’” (20) and those conditions are wont to change historically and geographically. Consequently, they are the ones she then sets about tracing in her analyses. Her project is “[s]urveying developments in romance fiction alongside selected historical changes in political and economic policy and in social norms in the West […] [to perform a] political interpretation of romance fiction, which neither denies the current relevance of these novels to gender struggle nor overlooks the historical developments that have shaped the ‘formula’” (22).

In examining the romance hero in conjunction with major transformations regarding multinational capitalism, changing perspectives on war, developments of gay rights and the connection between whiteness as an ideology and religious ethos, the study takes into account the diverse but sometimes overlapping judicial and political developments and their discursive effects on the construction of the hero in the three nations mentioned above. This distinction also governs the micro-structure of the chapters, alongside the distinction between publishing houses/format and subgenres. However, when it comes to the analyses that support Kamblé’s claims, two questions that are not addressed arise. The first is in how far it actually makes an interpretive difference to examine category novels side by side with single-title ones. The second would be an inquiry into the criteria on which the “major authors” (23) chosen for examination in the single-title category have been selected (namely J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts), Judith McNaught, Lindsey McKenna, Johanna Lindsey, Lisa Kleypas, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Gaelen Foley, Suzanne Brockmann, and Linda Howard). Moreover, the jump between subgenres surely supports the argument of the text, however, the implications of the changing settings and subgeneric literary and narrative traditions are left unexplored or at least unaccounted for, since it could be argued that the hero appearing in these diverse settings also imposes limits on the possibilities of representing him and on the meanings that can be generated. [End Page 2]

Structurally, the text is clearly divided – chronological recapitulation of social transformation in the aforementioned nations is followed by detailed (close) readings (again, chronologically ordered with regard to their year of publication) of a wide variety of romance novels, in order to drive home the point of the complex relationship between ideological movements and popular romantic constructions of the hero.


Firstly, the analysis of the representation of capitalism in the figure of the hero traces the developments of “faults […] [and] attractions of capitalism […] represented by the corresponding off-putting or seductive traits of the lover” (32) and the function of the capitalist as romantic hero who serves to “personaliz[e] the abstract economic force of the free market” (32).[1] From the 1950s onwards, Mills and Boon contemporary category romances incorporate more and more heroes who are financially superior to the heroine, effectively setting up a connection between hero and businessman and, starting in the 1960s, the plot motif of the hostile takeover in Mills and Boon is introduced, in which the heroine is in an economically disadvantaged position in comparison to the hero (be it due to, for example, her being his employee or him taking over her family firm). Class interests are thus not only expressed in the difference between the owner of capital (hero as bourgeois) and the working population (heroine as petit bourgeois/proletariat), but also in gendered terms (39). Kamblé convincingly argues that Mills and Boon “novels […] represent a socioeconomic drama of the way British national firms and the people in the workforce faced Britain’s changing economic landscape” (40). The romance genre in particular deals with this threat of capitalism by positing the hero as less powerful in another arena, as can be seen when his declaration of love endorses “the romantic relationship [that] neutralizes the threat of the all-powerful capitalist” (35).

Concerning the American romance, Kamblé examines how single-title historical romances negotiate the wealthy hero and his capitalist tendencies, arguing that historical romance “heroes, especially after the eighties, are actually capitalists in aristocrats’ clothing” (42). Here, the main focus is the “nagging apprehension of the capitalist’s dark side, ranging from the suspicion of [the hero’s] underhanded business deals to fears of his propensity for violence and crime” (49). Thus, the hero is often introduced as ruthless and dangerous in his capitalist dealings, but found to be benevolent by the heroine later-on in the narrative, thus at least partially allaying the genre’s anxiety about the nature of capitalist ventures. Kamblé therefore successfully proves her point and demonstrates how the “genre has adapted itself to match the rhetoric that idealizes capitalistic individualism and accumulation of private property as well as the consumer capitalist ability to create and manipulate desire” (59), while still detecting the representation of a critical stance in the genre (here especially in J.D. Robb’s In Death series) by the continual depiction of the possibility “that capitalism’s alter ego is composed of equal parts of robbery, deception, and homicide” (55). [End Page 3]


Secondly, economic capitalist and military issues are shown to be intimately intertwined in the figure of the hero, since through the “hero as warrior […] romance novels encapsulate the impact of a curious feature of post-modernity – the constant intrusion of international conflict onto the public consciousness” (61). Early Mills and Boon romances that represent the imperial soldier in his colonial quest are located and briefly analysed, but the main focus is on the American romance in this section. Documenting the influence of Cold War ideology and rhetoric in novels from the 1970s-1990s and the reaction to the first Gulf War and 9/11, it becomes clear that the romance hero moves from a concentration on “bravery and strategic thinking” (64) to additionally exhibiting “self-critique and self-doubt” (64). Therefore, the war is personalized, offering the possibility of a compassionate evaluation of the impact of war on the individual who fights it, for example through the representation of PTSD.

In a second move, the American popular romance points towards “the amorality that jingoistic policy breeds in its enforcers” (64). It is shown how the courtship and romance plot suggests but at the same time complicates solutions for the effect of war and patriotism on characters and their ethical behaviour. The draw towards loyalty to the nation and the drive towards the achievement of the romance’s happy ending work at cross-purposes, as Kamblé demonstrates using the example of Linda Howard’s Diamond Bay (1987): “The novel is thus conservative in terms of its conviction in the wedded state as the highest good, but its allegiance to the genre actually overrides the claims of the patriotic imperative and thus makes it politically subversive” (69). The historical and paranormal romance of the 2000s is then called upon in order to analyze the changing notion of what constitutes an ‘enemy’ of the nation, finding the examined novels rejecting a stable notion of the term and thus “recasting the debate on war” (83). Current romance texts also often feature the figure of the mercenary or private soldier, whose function, according to Kamblé, is to permit “twin desires to be reconciled to some degree; the narrative can symbolically attain the goal of American security but without admitting the potential sacrifice of moral stature on the part of actual US armed forces, that is, the nation itself” (79).

What would have generated a deeper understanding of the issue at hand in this chapter, but also in the whole study in general, is an additional examination of the different types of masculinities. Analysing the meaning that is constructed by an affiliation of the representations with stereotypical masculinities (especially with regard to character traditions and literary stereotypes) and, for example, looking at the difference between the representation of the hero as warrior, mercenary, and soldier (three terms with various implications for the type of masculinity they represent as well as the history of those (stereo)types) would have broadened the analysis and at the same time lent even more depth to the argument. [End Page 4]


Thirdly, the hero also “embodies the sexual norms underlying the bourgeois family and the problematic nature of heterosexism” (87) and thus refracts how the rise in “gay visibility” garners “a response that can be glimpsed in romance novels in the hero’s own heterosexuality, his relationship with other men, and through an acknowledgment or denial of homoerotic desire” (87). Kamblé includes the proliferation of the ethnically exoticized hero in the UK and Canada after the sixties who is persuasively demonstrated to be “culled from the Orientalist myth of Eastern heterosexual excess, of one man servicing a harem of wives and concubines, of an inexhaustible masculinity – a myth both repulsive and reassuring because at least this is a man who won’t stray from the female sex” (100). At this stage in the analysis, one of the most important points for contemporary scholarship on romance might be, in my opinion, the introduction of a new angle on the interpretation of scenes of rape or ‘forced seduction’ in the romance novel of the seventies and eighties – a plot device that has long been a major point of criticism of the genre as a whole. Kamblé argues that “the timing of the motif’s appearance in the eighties, unprecedented in the genre’s nearly 70-year history, suggests that the focus on forceful male desire for a woman is a reaffirmation of heterosexuality” (109). Thus, instead of reading the rape scenes as a power imbalance that reinforces patriarchal structures even as they are criticized (a point which nevertheless holds true in such a reading), Kamblé suggests that it is also central in another power struggle – the one between heterosexuality and homosexuality, in which “masculinity […] expresses its heterosexual identity through the rape of the heroine” (108).

Additionally, the development of the cross-dressing heroine in the nineties and the motif’s underlying homoerotics that introduce a “secondary queer narrative” (114) is examined (a similar interpretation has been made by Fletcher in her chapter on the Cross-Dressed heroine in Historical Romance Fiction (58-72), but focusing on the novels of Georgette Heyer, who, interestingly enough, uses the motif much earlier than the novels Kamblé suggests). Kamblé also explores the twenty-first century dual plot trend that incorporates a homosexual love story as subplot in a heterosexual one. Here, however, the implications of the fact that it is male homosexual relationships that are primarily added rather than female homosexual relationships would perhaps have warranted further exploration.


The fourth element of the episteme is located as an inherent Western-ness and thus whiteness in the representation of the romance hero and especially his relationship to the white heroine. Their connection is shown to be rooted in a spiritual notion of whiteness. By going back to Whiteness Studies’ foundational text White (1997) by Richard Dyer, Kamblé claims that “mass-market romance fiction’s episteme includes whiteness as the norm for the romantic experience and not because its protagonists are largely Caucasian; it is because the genre functions via the particular confluence of Protestant and capitalist ethos that Richard Dyer and Weber have noted” (133). According to this approach, “the exercise of white female sexuality is limited by white male self-control” (139) and explains the [End Page 5] dialectic of ascribing features of ‘darkness’ to the romance hero who nevertheless is redeemed by subscribing to a Protestant ethos of controlling his sexual impulses (134) and working towards a bourgeois understanding of (re)production. In this chapter, the most interesting point concerns the paranormal romance, identifying it in a Bakhtinian sense as “the genre’s turn toward the carnivalesque (with its connotations of challenging the socially regulated everyday world)” (148). Reading Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series as representative of the subgenre’s potential for “paving the way for the genre’s transformation into a racially diverse form” (148), it is demonstrated how an author with non-Western roots discursively incorporates elements of non-Western understandings of the romance hero and his representation with regard to social structures and social functions, thus also turning the paranormal romance and this specific example into a “commentary on colonial history and its racist legacies” (156).

Overall, the approach of analyzing the ideology that informs the depiction of the popular romance hero in a book-length study is a highly valuable contribution to the field. Kamblé’s text on occasion oscillates between being accessible to a more general interested audience and a peer group of scholars in that it sometimes gives no precise definitions of central terms – such as ideology, normativity or desire – terms that a peer group is probably familiar with, but that should nonetheless be clearly delineated in order to prevent points of criticism and obfuscation of the argument. These comments notwithstanding, Kamblé certainly makes a compelling argument for her reading of the romance hero within a Marxist frame that demonstrates the versatility of the popular romance novel as an arena for negotiation in which historically and culturally specific discourses are commented upon, reworked and sometimes subverted by the combination of the courtship/marriage plot and the novelistic traits and subplots which adapt upon incitement by social change. Therefore, the book is definitely a significant contribution to the research on popular romance, but also to the study of popular culture in general, since it does not exclusively engage with previous publications on the popular romance but rather with the theoretical and socio-cultural background needed to “evaluate the dynamic that the hero introduces into the genre on many ideological fronts” (157). It represents a thought-provoking analysis that will, no doubt, inspire appreciative and critical responses as well as more work on the romance hero and his textual transformations.

[1] Jan Cohn makes a similar argument, only her focus is firmly on the resulting impact of bourgeois patriarchal society and its economic power imbalance on women. Cohn also reads the popular romance as a narrative space for the negotiation of actual social and economic decisions: “The fantasy provided by popular romance exists to redress the real social and economic conditions of women in the world of the present; but the strategies and codes through which romance constructs and communicates fantasy have their roots in history, in the development of bourgeois society. […] [T]he social contradictions that inform such novels are buried deep in romance stories, charging them with subversive energy” (3). [End Page 6]

Works Cited

Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. Print.

Fletcher, Lisa. Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2007. Print.

Makinen, Merja. Feminist Popular Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. Print.

Radway, Janice A. “Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context.” Feminist Studies 9.1 (1983): 53-78. Web.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Roach, Catherine. “Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy.” JPRS (Journal of Popular Romance Studies) 1.1 (2010): n.pag. Web.

[End Page 7]


Review: Love Between the Covers, produced, written, and directed by Laurie Kahn

Review by Beth Driscoll

Australian universities and popular romance fiction may be moving towards their own Happily Ever After. Growing scholarly interest in romance fiction here includes presentations on romance fiction at large conferences, a special Australia issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and the award of a large Federal Government grant to study the genre worlds of romance, fantasy and crime in Australia.[1] For researchers and teachers looking to build upon this momentum, Laurie Kahn’s documentary Love Between the Covers is a valuable resource: a lively collection of interviews and footage that is sure to stimulate thought.

The greatest achievement of Love Between the Covers is that it presents the complexity of romance fiction as an ecosystem. Rather than pursuing a single clear narrative, the documentary offers a number of case studies that are surrounded by an assemblage of snapshots of the romance fiction industry. There are scenes showing pitches, marketing meetings, writing critique sessions, authors’ retreats, book signings, cover photo shoots, and writers writing, as well as interviews with authors, readers, editors, bloggers, and academics. This variety is a strength of the documentary, and sociologically minded students and scholars will value the insights into romance fiction’s intricate, vibrant networks and systems.

At the same time, the multiplicity of short scenes produces a somewhat chaotic viewing experience. For those coming from a literary studies background, in particular, the fast cuts of the film highlight romance fiction’s otherness from ‘high’ literature – the noise, the sociality, the predominance of women, the commercial imperatives.  This disorienting effect could obscure the film’s value for those who are searching for analytical frameworks to help them write about romance novels. Such frameworks are there in the film, touched upon briefly: interviewees discuss themes such as heroism, courage and love, and recognise romance fiction’s feminist commitment to women’s pleasure and success.

In one interview that could spark discussion, novelist Jennifer Crusie notes that great literature is often “toxic to women” but in romance “you get rewarded for going after what you want.” The more detailed case studies also open up important lines of inquiry. Author Eloisa James, for example, is a professor of English Literature but describes being [End Page 1] advised to conceal her romance writing in order to secure tenure. Lengthy interviews with Beverly Jenkins and Radclyffe raise questions about the representation of African American and queer women in romance novels, and case studies of co-authors and a self-published author illustrate different models of how romance fiction is written and produced.

Students in graduate publishing, writing, and editing courses will benefit not only from the film’s depiction of the multidimensional publishing process, but also its insights into industry change. Romance fiction leads the industry in digital innovation – uptake of ebooks, digital book talk and self-publishing – and the sector should be closely observed. In particular, the film’s mixed accounts of self-publishing reward attention.  Amongst comments from several interviewees about the pros and cons of self-publishing, the documentary offers the case study of Joanne Lockyer, an aspiring Australian romance author. Lockyer decides to self-publish her first novel; we see footage of the moment she uploads her book to Amazon, and the moment she delightedly unboxes the print-on-demand copies. This dramatic representation of the ease and satisfaction of self-publishing should catalyse discussions about the role of publishers in a changing industry.

The film shows romance fiction as an ecosystem, but a profoundly human and social one, and this is the aspect of the film that I found most interesting as a researcher of book culture. I was moved by the expressions of closeness between authors and readers – a feature of the romance genre, where authors often interact with their readers online and in person. This was beautifully captured through the film’s interviews with Kim Castillo, an author assistant. “Nobody in my house read,” Castillo recalls, but she connected with fellow readers when she started her first job, at age 14, as a sewing machine operator. Her co-workers mostly read romance, using a cardboard box as a lending library. Castillo struck up a correspondence with Eloisa James (in the film, James says “Kim was by far the most articulate who wrote to me”), and then came to work with James and other authors, handling events, newsletters, mail-outs, social media and more – “now I run a company”.

The film shows Castillo surrounded by a rich community of friends and colleagues with shared interests in romance fiction. Other scenes in the film recognise the tensions and conflict that can arise within romance, but overall it is the expressions of intimacy and support that are striking. Hearing these stories of friendship and seeing the affectionate gestures and smiles shared amongst authors and readers is powerful. The scenes invite academics to reframe their understanding of contemporary book culture and recognise the roles played by emotion and friendship. Studying individual texts and authors will always have a place, but academics are challenged by romance fiction and this film to consider books within a web of economic and interpersonal networks. Love Between the Covers provides compelling examples of the ways romance fiction satisfies readers and writers, makes money, and nurtures a social world.

[1] I am one of the chief investigators on this grant, along with Dr Kim Wilkins, Dr Lisa Fletcher and Prof David Carter. [End Page 2]


Review: An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror, by Amira Jarmakani

Review by Heather Schell

In recent years, there has been a surge of academic interest in the sheikh romance, or what some call “desert romance.” The term describes a small subgenre that appears primarily as category romance, in which the Western heroine finds herself at the mercy of a domineering Middle-Eastern sheikh; common conventions of the novels include captivity, sand, harems, invented geography, horses, and, ideally, feminist reforms in the sheikh’s sadly backward kingdom. These novels have a long and storied history, but one might have expected the events of September 11, 2001, and contemporary American military involvement in the Middle East, to make the form less popular. Instead, publication nearly quadrupled. Exactly how political events might relate to romance readers’ increased desire to read about sexy alpha sheikhs is open to interpretation, especially since the majority of these novels are expressly free of politics, religion, and even real-world geography. An Imperialist Love Story: Desert Romances and the War on Terror (2015), the most recent entry into this discussion, reads these novels not as a response to the war on terror but as part of the necessary cultural work that makes this war possible.

Jarmakani’s book joins other recent analyses by Hsu-Ming Teo, Amy Burge, and Stacy Holden. Teo is a cultural historian who, in Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novel (2012), examines the role of “the Orient” in Western cultural texts from the Second Crusade onward. She factors in the national contexts of the U.K, the US, and Australia, and her analysis of popular romance includes types of Orientalist romance less widely studied, such as historicals. Burge, a British medievalist, has a book forthcoming called Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance (Palgrave, 2016), which builds on her 2012 doctoral thesis. This is by far the most systematic, precisely designed study of sheikh romance to date; her book analyzes change and continuity in romantic fantasies about the “romance East.” Holden’s article “Love in the Desert” (2015) draws on a series of disarmingly frank interviews she held with editors and authors of sheikh romance and examines their goals and constraints. As a historian specializing in the modern Middle East and North Africa, Holden has a solid grounding in the political context of the novels. [End Page 1]

Jarmakani makes a lively contribution to this scholarship. She is primarily a theorist, and her work delves heavily into critical race and gender theory, as well as psychoanalytic theory. As such, her work is in some ways a better fit with the early feminist critics of popular romance, Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, than with the other scholars working on sheikh romance. However, her theoretical approach is not what will make this book most valuable to romance scholars: instead, it is her insistence that we read these books from the perspective of the Arab and/or Middle Eastern and/or Muslim characters. Many analyses of popular romance foreground gender, so this is a welcome addition. Her examples draw our attention to those ubiquitous scenes of silent, indistinguishable women in hijab, scenes not unique to sheikh romance but permeating American media. Because Jarmakani comes to popular romance through her scholarly interest in cultural representations of Arab and Muslim women, she is not particularly interested in the novelists’ intentions, or the potential effect of these novels on their readers, or even the texts themselves. Instead, she explores the way in which tropes and motifs in these books fit within a larger context of American ideas about the Middle East.

Two parts of this book were published before: “’The Sheik Who Loved Me’: Romancing the War on Terror” (2010) in Signs, and “Desiring the Big Bad Blade: Racing the Sheikh in Desert Romances” (2011) in American Quarterly. While both are solid stand-alone pieces, this book joins them in an overarching argument using ideas from transnational feminism, critical theory, and psychoanalytic theory via Deluze and Guattari.

An Imperialist Love Story places sheikh romance firmly in the context of neoliberalism, American political ideology, and liberal multiculturalism.  Jarmakani argues that imperialism may look different than it did in earlier centuries, but it is still alive and well, providing real economic benefit to the Western nations that engage in it. Most of us, however, do not like to think of ourselves as intervening in foreign nations for economic or political gain; thus, as a culture we prefer to understand our actions as benevolent, perhaps an effort to rescue oppressed people from merciless regimes or vicious jihadists. We also like to see these interventions as atypical, temporary responses to exceptional circumstances, rather than a characteristic strategy for exploiting other parts of the world for their labor, their natural resources, and geopolitical advantages.  Interpreting self-serving military action as aid requires some serious spin, which we can accomplish in a number of ways. For example, by insisting that our own values—self-determination, freedom, democracy, etc.—are universal values, of benefit to everyone, we can interpret many foreign governments or cultures as in urgent need of intervention. The Middle East, with its vast oil reserves and strategic location vis-à-vis Europe and Russia, has historically been an irresistible target for such intervention. If decades of fending off assorted Western militaries should prompt people in the region to hate us and wish us harm, Jarmakani muses, then we have yet another justification for waging war.

Jarmakani’s argument thus far is familiar. Her next step takes us into the terrain of psychoanalytic theory, but at the level of culture rather than the individual.  Our relationship with the Middle East is all about desire, she argues, but in the sheikh romance, we reimagine our political and economic desires as other kinds of desire: to mate, to affiliate, to help. In this regard, the “romantic sheikh is contemporary US imperialism personified” (xix). He is a companion figure to the terrorist, both of whom spur us to intervene in the region. While the terrorist motivates through fear, the sheikh motivates through desire, and in his contemporary incarnation he is not only a romance hero but also [End Page 2] the ideal political ally, willing to cooperate with the US and representing views on human rights and strategic economic interests that “Anglo-American powers” want to foster. While other scholars have interpreted the sheikh romance as working against popular rhetoric about Islamic extremism, Jarmakani suggests that the reconciliation we see in these books serves our national political agenda and expresses the same imperialist tendencies, albeit in a more benevolent guise. Her analysis of the heroine also has a political framework, drawing our attention to the feminist imperialist fantasies (of rescuing our helpless foreign sisters) played out in these novels.

My single favorite concept in this book arises from Jarmakani’s discussion of the setting of sheikh romance. The twenty-first century sheikh romance usually takes place in an imaginary land, in which authors invent kingdoms and customs with a freewheeling disregard for the real world, even while a number of conventional features (such as sand, harems, horses, and exotic dress) create a recognizable if fictitious landscape for readers. To scholars struggling to describe this setting, Jarmakani offers the term “Arabiastan.”[1] Use of the term nods towards the Orientalist fantasy yet draws our attention to the geo-political implications of this space. Additionally, Arabiastan cleverly mirrors the convention in contemporary sheikh romance of inventing one’s own country.

To return to the issue of feminism, Jarmakani criticizes scholarship on romance for relying on “empowerment” or “choice” feminism. This popular version of feminism rests on the idea that anything a woman does to make herself feel good and powerful is inherently a feminist act, merely because she is a woman exercising her choice. While choice may well be a necessary condition to feminist action, it is not a sufficient one—just consider J.K. Rowling’s memorable Dolores Umbridge, who is quite empowered by her choices.

Has scholarship on popular romance relied on this facile definition of feminism? If so, Jarmakani’s analysis does not demonstrate it. She asserts that “one of the key debates in both scholarly and industry online conversations about romance novels is about the extent to which the books can be considered feminist cultural productions focused positively on female sexual pleasure as opposed to oppressive ‘trash’ books that inure the mostly female readerships to the evils of patriarchy” (82-83). This startling claim can be attributed to the fact that this section of her argument has not been updated since it first appeared in the 2010 Signs article. One of her main sources is Sally Goade’s edited collection of essays, Empowerment versus Oppression (2007). Not surprisingly, Jarmakani finds plentiful discussion of empowerment in Goade’s book, but this cannot support a broader argument about the direction of the field in general. Other examples are even older, and nothing is more recent than 2007. That said, I agree with Jarmakani that associating personal empowerment with feminism is problematic in a scholarly context. Given that American popular culture, media, and advertising today still pitch empowerment as feminism, it can come as no surprise that romance novelists and their readers might embrace the same definition. We might be tempted to read all romance novels as inherently feminist, merely because, as Pamela Regis notes, their narrative structure empowers fictional heroines (15), or because women choose to write them. Jackie Horne, however, recommends a more productive and reflective response, urging scholars/readers to ask themselves, “Can this particular book be considered feminist, and if so, in what ways?” (Horne, n.p.).

Jarmakani’s argument should provoke productive discussion. If we compare Teo’s conclusions in Desert Passions to Jarmakani’s, we find that Teo notes similar problems to the ones Jarmakani identifies—the novels’ inaccuracy, heroes who are “White men [End Page 3] performing in ‘Arab-face’” (Teo 303), passive, speechless Arab women who can only achieve personhood through the American heroine’s efforts—but these two scholars approach the same material in dramatically different ways. Teo argues that “however misguided or inaccurate” these novels may be, “surely [the] humanizing [of Arab and Muslim males]—their representation as attractive and intelligent potential lovers, partners, husbands, and fathers. . . .—represents the ability of this particular form of women’s popular culture to temper negative stereotypes that seem ubiquitous today” (303). Jarmakani dismisses Teo’s interpretation as a fantasy of liberal multiculturalism, in which “positive representations” are seen as a useful response to negative representations (20). Instead, she argues, this kind of binary opposition only strengthens stereotypes (20).

Holden maintains that these two stances are a choice point:

Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in the light of their authors’ intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one in which . . . individuals from two worlds, now at odds, . . . [can] fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together (17).

I would have to agree with Holden; both interpretations have merit and can be substantiated with compelling evidence. However, I would add that close reading offers a different perspective from broad observation. Because Jarmakani examines these novels piecemeal, it is hard to see the distinctions that might challenge or complicate her argument. Consider Brenda Jackson’s novel Delaney’s Desert Sheikh, which Jarmakani notes is the only mainstream sheikh romance written by an African-American novelist. Broadly speaking, Delaney’s Desert Sheikh follows the typical fantasy of feminist Orientalism, with a Tahrani sheikh marrying a foreign woman who then introduces women’s rights into his country. A closer reading reveals an interesting spin: the feminist reformer is not the heroine, nor is she American. Queen Fatimah, originally from Egypt, is the hero’s stepmother and an important character in the book. Indeed, her progressive reform was initiated during our hero’s childhood and shaped his perspective on the world. The narrative thus significantly changes the fantasy by putting Tahran’s political and social change in the hands of a woman from the Middle East, in sharp contrast to what Jarmakani notes is the more typical “assumption of Arabiastani women’s ignorance and helplessness” (104). Indeed, Jarmakani points to a scene early in the novel when the sheikh jokes that the heroine might start “a women’s rights revolution” in his home country, yet she asserts that Jackson “backs away from [this] idea” of revolution because it “seems to come too close to readers’ fears about the region” (108). Closer attention to the narrative makes it clear that the sheikh’s joke was amusing because that revolution had occurred a decade or so earlier.

Delaney’s Desert Sheikh shares the fantasy of feminist liberation but does not imagine that Anglo-American women must be the ones to instigate it. Brenda Jackson was born in 1953 and came of age during the Black Power era, when the Nation of Islam was a salient model of Muslim identity and black pride. She called her sheikh Jamal, a popular [End Page 4] Arabic name choice for African-American boys in the United States since the 1970s. Prince Jamal’s mother was originally from Africa, as was his stepmother, giving him a shared racial ancestry with the heroine. This sheikh is less exotic, less alien, more familiar, than the sheikhs who woo white heroines. In fact, the heroine learns more about Jamal’s country from her brother, who has met Jamal’s father. And we should note that this book is ranked by Goodreads readers as one of their favorite sheikh romances.

This brings me to the conclusion of Jarmakani’s book, where she plays with “the possibility of reading the story—whatever story one has been reading or telling about the war on terror—in a different way” (191). This compelling recommendation invites us to look back at An Imperialist Love Story as an elegant model of how such rereading might be undertaken. She reminds us that it is important to look at the ideological work of certain genres, both within romance but also outside of it. Remarkably, this book’s most significant contribution to the field is simultaneously its major limit: examining sheikh romances in this larger context gives us insight into their appeal but also obscures the ways that some of these novels and their authors push at genre boundaries and blurs the complexity of readers’ responses. It’s worth considering a possibility that her book seems to dismiss: that some readers and writers are already reading this story in a different way.

[1] I also quite like Amy Burge’s term, the “romance East,” which foregrounds generic considerations and the continuities of this Orientalist landscape over time. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Burge, Amy. Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance. New York: Palgrave, 2016.

Holden, Stacy E. “Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015).

Horne, Jackie. “Feminist Romance.” The Popular Romance Project. 2012. Web. 28 May 2016.

Jackson, Brenda. Delaney’s Desert Sheikh. Silhouette, 2007.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Teo, Hsu-Ming. Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels. University of Texas Press, 2012.

[End Page 6]


Review: Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television, edited by Michael DeAngelis

Review by Ruth O’Donnell

Michael DeAngelis’s edited collection Reading the Bromance: Homosocial Relationships in Film and Television (2014) is a timely contribution to film scholarship on the subject of bromance in its various media iterations. The term bromance, bringing together ‘bro-’ with ‘romance’, is an attempt to capture the idea of a male intimacy that simultaneously quashes any potential for sexual expression. As DeAngelis suggests, the very concept of bromance is suffused with paradox and contradiction: ‘bromance involves something that must happen (the demonstration of intimacy itself) on the condition that other things do not happen (the avowal or expression of sexual desire between straight men)’ (p.1).

It is a phenomenon that may be simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; at its heart lies a deep ambivalence about sexual equality and gay rights. Bromance is profoundly heteronormative in aspect, as well as potentially misogynistic.  This collection of essays provides a sophisticated analysis of the anxieties prevalent in modern Western masculinity that bromantic screen relations give voice to and, through a range of methods, seek to defuse.

The term bromance, as a signifier of close emotional male bonds in a context of heterosexual friendship, did not reach common parlance until the mid-2000s, by which time it had entered popular vocabulary and culture through films such as I Love You, Man (John Hamburg, 2009) and Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007), developing its own film genre and marketing rationale. The first section of essays in the collection takes a historical purview of American culture and manifestations of bromantic narrative elements prior to its recognition as a genre by Hollywood.

In the opening chapter, Jenna Weinman offers a comparative account of early sixties romantic comedies starring Rock Hudson, Doris Day and Tony Rudd and the millennial Bromance in ‘Second Bananas and Gay Chicken: Bromancing the Rom-Com in the Fifties and Now’. The love triangles that typified the Hudson-Day relationships of films such as Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) and That Touch of Mink (Delbert Mann, 1962) were [End Page 1] paralleled by immature male friendships that were threatened – and finally usurped – by heterosexual romance. Weinman compares such narratives to later films such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005) and Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007), suggesting that both genres prioritize male-male bonds over those of romantic love, with little promise that such homosocial immaturity will be resolved by the social demands of marriage and fatherhood.

In ‘Grumpy Old Men: “Bros before Hoes”’ Hilary Radner interrogates the film series that provides a model of male-male bonds mediated by a female love interest as a way of undermining any suggestion of homosexual interest. This dynamic calls to mind Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of male homosociality described in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985). Sedgwick talks of the triangulation of desire, in which men develop intense bonds with one another that are expressed indirectly through a female third party (p1). Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s pairing in the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men (Donald Petrie) referred to the 1960s buddy film The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), the title of which draws attention to a potentially extra-normative bond between the two men. In Grumpy Old Men, the characters Lemmon and Matthau play find themselves competing for the affections of the (younger) Ariel (Ann-Magret), which allows their close relationship to remain unscrutinised. The film appears to evince nostalgia for a previous era in which such male bonds were taken at face value and did not require the bromantic alibi that Ariel’s presence provides.

In ‘Fears of a Millennial Masculinity: Scream’s Queer Killers’ David Greven traces the trajectory of pre-bromance experiments in homosocial intimacy and their expression as psychopathology in the teen horror genre, looking at Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) as a case study. In common with the bromance, such horror films are characterised by immaturity and male bonds that are interrupted by the presence of a maligned female character. Both genres ‘promote intensely defensive responses to sexuality’ (pp. 80-81) but in the horror film only through the death of these ‘queer’ male protagonists can patriarchal order be restored.

The second section of the book focuses on the contemporary cinematic bromance, looking both at canonical Hollywood films that have come to be associated with the term, as well as key examples from world cinema.

Chapter four, ‘I Love You, Hombre: Y tu mama tambien as Border-Crossing Romance’, by Nick Davis, analyses a film that pre-empted the North American inception of the bromance and, in its privileging of a male homosocial narrative, forced the US industry to pay attention to the market for such work. Indeed, Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001) goes further than its US counterparts in following through with a homosexual encounter between the principal characters. That it is a relationship facilitated by a strong female protagonist that exists in the place of the marginal roles assigned to Hollywood women, further suggests a tension between the Mexican and US cultural industries that the film reflects.

Meheli Sen’s chapter, ‘From Dostana to Bromance: Buddies in Hindi Commercial Cinema Reconsidered’ takes as its study the dostana genre, looking at its development from the 1970s to the present day. Representation of the masculine code of friendship known as dostana was transformed during this period of Hindi cinema. The intense bonds of love and loyalty and concomitant gestures of sacrifice characterising the ‘Bachlan film’ are [End Page 2] tempered by  subsequent iterations of the buddy film in a more recent Indian cinema, increasingly informed by globalisation and the expression of individual desire.

The remaining contributions of the second section of the book turn their attention to representations of the bromance in Hollywood film. In ‘From Batman to I Love You, Man: Queer Taste, Vulgarity and the Bromance as Sensibility and Film Genre’ Ken Feil explores the use of ‘gross-out’ comedy in popular culture to disavow another vulgarity that looms in the threat of eroticisation of the male body. Looking at films such as I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (Dennis Dugan, 2007), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004) and I Love You, Man, Feil traces how representations of ‘masculine vulgarity’ that both marginalise and objectify women and gay men work to strengthen homosocial intimacy (while negating its homosexual expression).

In ‘Rad Bromance (or I Love You, Man but We Won’t Be Humping on Humpday)’ Peter Forster questions the fundamental dissonance evident in the term ‘bro-mance’ and its wider implications in the analysis of two films, one Hollywood, one American independent. Two issues arise: first, the dangerous proximity of homosociality to homosexuality; second, the freedom allowed by homosocial bonds that threatens to be negated by the heterosexual dyad. Whilst the film narrative may encourage its protagonists to deviate from the demands of the heterosexual romance, the culmination of the plot insists upon its male protagonists giving up their treasured male friendships in favour of heteronormative pulls.

Michael DeAngelis in his chapter ‘Queerness and Futurity in Superbad’ interrogates the notion of ‘queerness’, not in relation to characters or matters of representation, but in terms of narrative time itself. Superbad’s exploration of temporality brings into question the normalcy of time in so far as it supports heteronormative narrative structure. DeAngelis examines how theoretical concepts of ‘futurity, straight time, and queer time can help illuminate the strategies’ (p. 215) used to explore the homosocial connections employed in contemporary bromance, taking Superbad as his case study. Ultimately, the film’s closing scenes do little to undermine the more meaningful scenes of intimacy between the two protagonists, Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Sera), at their sleepover prior to their departure for college. The ending, which matches the pair with two female love interests (with whom they were previously unsuccessful), instead ‘intensifies the queer bond between the bromancers by rendering the familiar strange’. (p. 228) The film offers the pair no future together that can accommodate their intimacy so they are forced to renounce each other and part.

The final section of the collection explores depictions of bromance beyond the Hollywood comedy genre, looking at three analyses of bromantic relationships in US television drama.

In ‘Becoming Bromosexual: Straight Men, Gay Men and Male Bonding on US TV’ Ron Becker argues that greater visibility of the gay community in the 1990s was met with mounting anxiety in TV representations of male-male friendships, which led to a shift in bromantic discourse in the following decade. ‘Mistaken identity’ plots, in which male protagonists were taken as gay, articulated such anxieties and were popular in network TV shows including Friends and Frasier. Becker also examines more recent reality TV programming, including the knowingly named Bromance, which presents effeminacy as a greater threat to homosocial bonding than homosexuality itself.

Murray Pomerance’s subject of investigation is the House and Wilson friendship in the US TV series House that flirts with homoerotic promise whilst never delivering: the [End Page 3] quintessence of bromance. In ‘The Bromance stunt in House’ Pomerance describes the ‘stunt’ of the titular character performing the cultural signifiers of homosexuality in order to befriend, and ultimately seduce Nora (Sasha Alexander), an attractive neighbour in Wilson’s apartment block. The stunt depends on the ‘target’ recognising and reading the cues that he provides her with. As Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) has already expressed a sexual interest in the same woman, House’s (Hugh Laurie) performance becomes a show of heterosexual masculine competition, with each more invested in the other’s failure than in romantic success with Nora herself. Wilson is only able to defeat House by staging a public proposal, which simultaneously destroys both their chances, while perversely confirming their commitment to each other. Moreover, the episode ends with the pair watching a hockey game together, while bickering about furniture and singing show tunes. Such simultaneous signifiers of the heteronormative and non-heteronormative, suggests Pomerance, leave the relationship open to interpretation as the viewer prefers.

The final chapter of the book – “This ain’t about your money, bro. Your boy gave you up”: Bromance and Breakup in HBO’s The Wire’ – looks at the dynamics of male friendship and intimacy that characterise the TV series. In a show that consistently marginalises women and female-centred stories, author Dominic Lennard argues how male friendships and homosocial intimacies are favoured, with homophobic rhetoric employed as a bonding strategy in a hyper-masculinised environment that denies its subjects the language in which to articulate their mutual attraction.

This edited collection provides a comprehensive critique of the cultural phenomenon of bromance. It charts the development of key bromantic tropes, such as the privileging of a male intimacy that must be disavowed in its sexual form and homosocial immaturity, across a variety of film genres, scrutinising developments in Hollywood and world cinema and analysing depictions of bromantic dynamics in US TV. Asking as many questions as it answers, the book throws open to debate the possible pleasures available through bromance with its potential, too often contained, for undermining heteronormative modes of representation. [End Page 4]


Review: The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance, by Joseph Crawford

Review by María T. Ramos-García

Over the last few years, we have witnessed the publication of masses of books on the Twilight Saga, some addressed to the general public, others geared toward an academic audience (for example, Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality; The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films; The Twilight Saga: Exploring the Global Phenomenon; Twilight and History among others). In The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and Rise of Paranormal Romance, Joseph Crawford tries to offer a more comprehensive perspective on the ascent of the paranormal romance in the twenty-first century, a goal he only partially achieves.

The title prefigures the tension between the conflicting focuses that vie for the author’s attention, and that results in a very informative and valuable book for paranormal romance studies, but not the groundbreaking holistic interpretation of the genre that, as a scholar, I was hoping for. The word play on the first part of the title indicates its focus on the Twilight Saga, as well as the generic point of departure for the study: the Gothic, Crawford’s area of expertise, and the topic of much of his previous critical production, especially his previous book Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror (2013). The second part of the title shows a duality that is not easy to reconcile: vampire fiction and paranormal romance are very different categories. There is a lot of vampire fiction that is not romance, and paranormal romance, although it often includes vampires, is rarely about vampires alone.

The brief introduction is very promising. Beginning with a personal anecdote about a graduate student reading group of popular fiction, he points out the negative and visceral reactions that Twilight awoke among sophisticated readers interested in other popular genres, regardless of their “literary value”. He insightfully observes that “[c]learly the Twilight books had accomplished something, something that strongly appealed to an extremely wide contemporary audience: no author sells over 100 million books by accident” (3, emphasis in the original). He compares the saga’s success to that of the Harry Potter series, which was largely positively received, and concludes that “the much more [End Page 1] heavily contested success of Twilight, which can count both its fans and its detractors by the tens of millions, points to its position astride a major fault line in contemporary culture” (3). Crawford’s reading of the controversy surrounding Stephenie Meyer’s books is right on target, but it is in the framing of the saga that his argument becomes murky. On page four he establishes a cause and effect relationship between the success of Twilight and the rise of the genre “sometimes labelled ‘paranormal romance’ and sometimes ‘dark fantasy’, but always awash with novels featuring red, white and black covers” (4). Crawford establishes a periodization in which he considers a pre-history of the genre in the 1970s and 1980s (where vampires are portrayed as more humanized), a consolidation between 1989 and 2001 (the emergence of vampires appearing as love interests), and generic maturity between 2002 and 2005 (the year of publication of the first Twilight installment). However, on page eight, he considers 2000-2008 “the crucial years . . . in which the paranormal romance moved from being an obscure subgenre to an extremely popular (and extremely controversial) form of mainstream fiction”. The implicit tension in Crawford’s periodization , where “generic maturity” precedes (rather than coincides with) mainstream success, reflects Crawford’s oscillation between an interpretation in which Twilight is at the center of the paranormal phenomenon, and another in which the saga is just the most popular manifestation of an ongoing trend in which it is somehow an outlier. Twilight does not imitate other books already being published (Stephenie Meyer has been very outspoken about the fact that she does not read paranormal romance herself) but it has definitely captured an existing zeitgeist. On the other hand, it boosted the visibility and sales of a genre that was already growing and developing a significant readership at the time. In fact, as Crawford admits later in the book, many of the most enthusiastic Twilight fans do not enjoy other paranormal romance authors. Crawford’s reluctant acknowledgement of and dismissiveness towards these other authors provides a skewed perspective of the evolution of the genre.

Most relevant for the readers of this journal is Crawford’s overly superficial treatment of generic issues. After dismissing Pamela Regis’ definition of the romance novel as ahistorical, and the RWA’s definition of the genre as too restrictive, he makes a generic distinction between novels that would be strictly paranormal romance (here defined as “[a] work that tells the story of the development and consummation of a positive, loving romantic relationship between a human and a vampire”) and those that also include “mystery and action adventure storylines” (9). His example of the first kind is Lori Herter’s De Morrisey series (1991-1993), while his examples of the second kind all fall into what most publishers, readers, and critics would consider urban fantasy, a term that Crawford uses later in the book but that is not mentioned in the introduction. The problem with this definition of genre is that Herter’s novels are an early example whose lack of real conflict actually make them generic outliers. According to this clear-cut distinction between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, virtually no paranormal novels published since 2000 could be considered strictly romance because even those that end each novel with the ‘happily ever after’ (HEA) of a new couple include “mystery and action storylines” that occupy a large percentage of the text and are essential to the world-building and reading experience.

Chapter 1, “The First 800 years”, begins with the use of the term romance meaning a text written in a Romance language as opposed to Latin, and its early use as a narrative form of fantasy and adventure versus the more realistic genre of the novel. Crawford then [End Page 2] moves to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and the romance novels of Jane Austen, introducing one of his major arguments: that both genres came from the same origins, and both converge again in the paranormal romance of today. He also argues that the Byronic hero is another unifying element of both romance and the Gothic that manifests itself in the paranormal romance, in which the supernatural character of the hero exacerbates the Byronic elements of the alpha-male. This chapter touches on all the mandatory canonical texts, from Jane Eyre  (1847) to Clarissa (1748), and, already in the twentieth century, Rebecca (1938) and The Sheik  (1919), tracking the evolution of the Byronic hero in both the Gothic and the romance. From those early twentieth-century texts, Crawford moves to the 1970s with the publication of Interview with the Vampire (1977) and The Flame and the Flower (1972) as examples of the evolution of the vampire and the romance novel respectively. While the information included in the chapter is hardly new, the synthesis is informative and the interpretation solid.

Chapter 2, “Romancing the Paranormal”, continues where chapter 1 left off, with the beginnings of the paranormal romance itself. This is the most valuable chapter, since it tracks the development of the vampire and other paranormal beings from monsters into love interests, incorporating less-well-known texts and offering insightful analysis. He traces the shift from the sympathetic vampire of the 1970s and 1980s in literature and film to the vampire as a love interest and, therefore, the first actual romance novels. He focuses on the work of Lori Herter in the De Morrisey series (1991-1993), Maggy Shayne’s Wings of the Night series (1993-), and Linda Lael Miller’s Vampire series (1993-1996), as well as Harlequin Mills & Boon’s first attempt at publishing a paranormal line, Silhouette Shadows, from 1993 to 1996. He also establishes a parallel with changes to vampire films in the 1990s, especially Coppola’s Bram Stocker’s Dracula (1992), as well as other influential paranormal box office successes of the period, such a Ghost (1990) or Angel for Hire (1991). While again, his focus is on the vampire, Crawford’s examples also include werewolves, witches, ghosts and other paranormal characters and themes. The last part of the chapter is devoted to the rise of the young adult paranormal romance, especially Annette Curtis Klause and L. J. Smith.

This analysis is continued in Chapter 3 “Sleeping with the Enemy”, which includes an extensive analysis of Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (one of the early urban fantasy series, starting in 1993) and Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004) TV series. Crawford admits that Hamilton’s series, which was still going in 2014, has undergone a very drastic and unique evolution unusual for the genre, but there is no doubt that it is a major milestone in the development of the paranormal. That is the case even more so in the two TV series, especially Buffy, which was undoubtedly a major influence that reached a much larger audience than the early novels ever could.

Chapter 4, “The New Millenium” begins with an analysis of Christine Feehan‘s Carpathian Series (1999-) and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse (2001-2013). Crawford’s discomfort with the romance makes its first appearance here. It becomes evident that his analysis is much more insightful when it comes to Harris’ series (usually classified as urban fantasy) than Feehan’s (definitely romance). However, after a few pages on each author, the largest part of the chapter is devoted to the Twilight saga, which is also the subject of the entire next chapter, appropriately entitled “The Twilight Controversy”. Contrary to the author’s discomfort with the previous texts, his analysis of Twilight shows significantly more enthusiasm for the subject, and provides a great synthesis of criticism (scholarly and [End Page 3] otherwise) on the bestseller collection. One of the most provocative ideas in the book is its analysis of the “cultural fault line” that reactions to Twilight bring to the forefront. Crawford points out that while supporters of the saga are reading the characters’ actions within the framework of the genre—and therefore not necessarily as models of real-life behavior—its detractors are not utilizing those generic conventions and therefore consider the characters as dangerous role models for readers who, in their view, don’t know any better. Ideologically, he points out how the text is multi-vocal, so while it touches on potentially controversial topics such as marriage, abortion, and premarital sex, it is easy to read Twilight as advocating opposing ideologies, if the reader chooses to ignore its tensions and contradictions.

Reading Crawford’s book, one might think that Twilight is both the highlight and culmination of the paranormal romance, because the sixth and last chapter, “Mutations”, is devoted almost exclusively to film and television adaptations of previously published paranormal romances, especially the films based on the Twilight series and the television series True Blood (2008-2014)), based on Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, and L. J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries (2009-). These visual versions are what the author considers in his epilogue the manifestation of the “maturity of the genre” (271); a genre that in his opinion is in decadence—at least in its form as a novel. His evidence for this conclusion again shows the problems inherent in his equating of paranormal with vampires; Roxanne Longstreet, who publishes a young adult paranormal series as Rachel Caine, told Crawford that “most editors in traditional publishing that I’ve spoken to are no longer seeking vampire-themed material” (271), which Crawford takes to be evidence that paranormal fiction on the whole is past its prime. Yet a quick look at two of the most successful authors in the 2014 New York Times Best Sellers list confirms that J. R. Ward had two number one bestsellers, one of them in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, in which vampires are the protagonists, and one featuring other paranormal beings, while Patricia Briggs (who writes paranormals without vampires) also had a number one bestseller. There simply is not evidence that if vampires are not in, paranormal is out.

The alternating definition of vampire romance at some times and paranormal romance at other times is one of the methodological problems of Crawford’s book. It is debatable whether such a distinction can even be made, since virtually all series combine an ever-increasing array of paranormal beings, of which vampires are only one. However, his initial definition of paranormal romance in the introduction only included “a loving romantic relationship between a human and a vampire” (9). This definition grossly simplifies the complex and varied pairings that are created in these texts. Just to mention a few examples, in J.R. Ward’s The Black Dagger Brotherhood, most pairings are among vampires, and those initially human turn out to not be really humans or change into something else, such as a ghost before their HEA. In other series, such as Sookie Stackhouse, although vampires are the first supernatural species the reader learns about, all kinds of shapeshifters, and even demons make an appearance. Even the protagonist, as we eventually learn, is part fairy and achieves her HEA with a shapeshifter. In Sherrilyn Kenyon’s world, there are no actual vampires (although daemons can be considered similar since they cannot withstand sunlight and live off human souls—not blood), but the characters and pairing that take place, although at the beginning of the series include some humans, are mostly among dark-hunters, shapeshifters, gods and goddesses of varied mythologies, dream-hunters and other supernatural beings.  In fact, paranormal romance [End Page 4] sometimes even pushes the boundaries of heteronormativity (a homosexual couple are the protagonists in Lover at Last (2013) by J. R. Ward, and in Lynn Viehl’s Dreamveil (2010) the HEA is between a woman and two men).

There is also a lack of explicit criteria in the selection of authors and texts included in the analysis. Crawford glosses over most of the bestseller paranormal authors of the twenty-first century. Authors such as Patricia Briggs, Kresley Cole, Kim Harrison, Richelle Mead, and Carrie Vaughn are barely mentioned. J. R. Ward, Jeaniene Frost, Tanya Huff, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Jane Ann Krentz are mentioned little more, and authors such as Gena Showalter, Nalini Singh, Katie McAlister, Linsay Sands, Lynn Viehl or Kerrilyn Sparks (to name a few of the authors that were publishing paranormal by 2007 and are still publishing today) are not included at all. Crawford also displays a certain tone of condescension towards romance in general and the paranormal romance in particular, even if he never quite displays the contempt of other critics of the genre. This attitude may help explain the fact that he draws a direct line from the early 1990s through Feehan and Harris straight to Meyer, and then describes a supposed decline of the genre, which in his view survives only in film and television. Crawford also ignores the historical context in which the genre developed; while he includes historical interpretations of earlier texts, no socio-historical contextualization is given for newer texts.

In spite of the major gaps outlined above, overall, Joseph Crawford’s book is well-written and informative. He pulls together valuable information and creates a genealogy that includes both the Gothic and the romance strands which converge in the paranormal romance, and proffers some provocative interpretations of this connection. The book is strong in the areas the author is familiar with (the Gothic, Twilight, and the television programmes and films he analyzes) and his description of the trajectory of the paranormal from Ann Rice to the romances of the 1990s is the best and most complete that I have yet seen. However, while the book covers the years 1990-2000 reasonably well, it is definitely not a study of the paranormal romance in the  twenty-first century, as the title (which states the years 1990-2012 as the period being analyzed) seems to indicate. If the reader keeps in mind the limitations in its scope, Crawford’s new book is a valuable contribution worth reading for anyone interested in this genre. [End Page 5]

Works Cited

Bucciferro, Claudia. The Twilight Saga: Exploring the Global Phenomenon. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013. Print.

Clarke, Amy and M. Marijane Osborn, eds. The Twilight Mystique: Critical Essays on the Novels and Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.

Crawford, Joseph. Gothic Fiction and the Invention of Terrorism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Fear in the Age of the Reign of Terror. London, England: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Housel, Rebecca and J. Jeremy Wisnewski, eds. Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Reagin, Nancy, ed. Twilight and History. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P., 2003. Print.

Viehl, Lynn. Dreamveil. New York: New American Library, 2010. Print.

Ward, J.R. Lover at Last. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.

[End Page 6]


Review: Existentialism and Romantic Love, by Skye Cleary

Review by Xenia Hanusiak

In her introduction to Existentialism and Romantic Love, nascent Australian scholar and writer Skye Cleary speaks directly to the motivations behind her book. Cleary seeks to set the record straight on the popular notion of modern love as it is articulated via the maze of popular internet dating sites, self-help books, and celebrity advice columns. Romantic love is defined and referred to almost constantly throughout Cleary’s book as the proverbial search for our understanding of the perfect soul mate or as the nineteenth-century ideal would describe as the “immortal beloved.” The quest, defined by Cleary “involves the idea of creating a union and becoming ‘we’ instead of two ‘I’s” (14). Cleary examines the questions: does such a union exist? Can it exist? And if so, how can it exist?

To complete her mission, Cleary enlists the assistance of five existentialist philosophers as her antidotes-in-arms because she believes “they explore the space between the ideals of romantic loving and the compromise lovers make in order to try to achieve those ideals” (1).  In a work that is part scholarship, part demystification, and part guidance, Existentialism and Romantic Love pursues a tour-guide approach to philosophy that is best represented by authors such as eminent English philosopher Roger Scruton and Swiss-born writer Alain de Botton. As their proprietorial rental rights of the bookshop front window attest, Scruton and de Botton are masters in distilling opaque philosophical theories into practical and palatable formats that are both enriching and entertaining for a broader thinking audience. Their nuanced crafting is more difficult to achieve than appears in the reading of their works. Existentialism and Romantic Love falls in between the categories of a reference manual and the type of work read by de Botton’s populist audiences, because the style and tone of Cleary’s writing does not subscribe to either category.  The caveat here is that this is Cleary’s first book.

Cleary’s argument is organized into five neat, balanced, and similarly sized chapters. Bookended by an instructive introduction and conclusion, Cleary’s chapters provide a synoptic overview of the persuasions and central arguments of the five existentialists in chronological order: Max Stirner; Søren Kierkegaard; Frederick Nietzsche; Jean­-Paul Sartre; and Simone de Beauvoir. Each chapter offers a brief historical summary and a perspective of existential theory that is contextualized with contemporary expectations of a romantic [End Page 1] relationship. As a part of each chapter, Cleary also offers a clever tactical detour that navigates the reader’s attention to a particular and narrower lens of interest. For example, in the case of Max Stirner, Cleary steers us toward the topic of “loving egoistically,” and in the case of Simone de Beauvoir, the notion of “loving authentically” occupies the central theme. This zooming in style is a skillful stratagem that allows Cleary an opportunity to canvas the broadest spectrum of existential interpretations of romantic love at the same time as giving her the occasion to probe deeper into a specific quality of love.  As a result, the reader is acquainted with Stirner’s contemplations on sacrifice and ownership; Kierkegaard’s search for balance between passion and pleasure and notions of subjectivity and perspective; Nietzsche’s advice on self-mastery; Sartre’s note to self on love’s destruction, and Simone de Beauvoir’s contemplations on devotion and gender differences.

On the positive side, Cleary’s duplication of the mapping structure in each chapter offers the reader a concentrated introduction to each philosopher’s contribution. Cleary’s summation of her extensive reading of each philosopher’s theory is built on a lucid style that is easily comprehended. The internal organization of each chapter has a catalogue-like quality. The danger of this uniform approach emerges after reading the first two chapters. It is at this point that the rewards of this reliable organization begin to weigh on the reading rhythm – so what we gain in recognition and direction we lose in our anticipation and the desire to keep reading. This is a pity since Cleary’s best work comes in the penultimate chapters on Sartre and de Beauvoir.

As a counterpoint to this clinical style, Cleary interpolates her information material with personal opinions. The insertions in the text ranging from practical instructions through to subjective observations are candid, conversational, and built with a language rooted in popular idioms. An example of this kind of tone and language is revealed for instance, when Cleary speaks about one of Nietzsche’s romantic interests, Lou Salomé. Cleary describes the lover as having “both brains and beauty” (73). These more populist interjections appear in contrast to the academic writing style of the work, and while it easy to see why Cleary is tempted to add these commentaries as a way to posit the work for a wider readership, the colloquial style pleads to a different publication.

Cleary’s insights however, provide their most valuable worth in a well-cadenced conclusion that bring her aerial discussions of existentialism and personal observations together. Cleary’s canvas of the existential view of romantic love is vast, compact and at times dense, but the quick reader can look forward to the book’s excellent and comprehensive concluding index which represents a  highly resourceful shortcut for any tour guide styled reading.

Existentialism and Romantic Love is a catalyst. The book opens one door to further close reading of existential texts and opens another door for thinking romantics to reconsider their idealistic approach to romantic love with an existential and, perhaps more realistic light.  While Cleary’s rhetorical approach refers back to the reader as the self-interrogator, Cleary’s surgical probe through the eyes of five existentialist thinkers does not mask her personal skepticism that the quest for a union built on “becoming ‘we’ instead of two ‘I’s” (14) is fraught with danger. [End Page 2]


Review: Reading from Behind: A Cultural Analysis of the Anus, by Jonathan A. Allan

Review by Catherine M. Roach

Romancing the Bottom: Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow.

When was the last time you thought about your anus? I mean, really thought about it. Analyzed it. If it’s been a while, here’s the book to get you going.

I tried to remember any previous analysis of the significance of the anus to which I’d been party, anytime I’d been invited to reflect on the implications surrounding that end bit of our anatomy that most of us engage daily but so rarely theorize. I could recall only one such incidence: my prenatal class at the hospital, almost twenty years ago, in an evening session that covered diapering, circumcision, and other matters pertinent to “down there.” Our neonatal nurse informed her class of expectant and nervous parents that some babies were born without an anus, which she helpfully further defined as a “butthole.” Another thing to worry about, I remember thinking, resolving to count fingers, toes, and all points of egress on my soon-to-arrive son. The nurse’s point runs contrary to our author’s assertion about the “universality of the anus” (47), but I assume that any sans butthole newborns are very quickly given one.

Jonathan Allan has given us a book about the anus. Allan is Research Chair in Queer Theory and Assistant Professor in Gender and Women’s Studies and English and Creative Writing at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba. A recipient of last year’s Academic Research Grant from the Romance Writers of America, he has longstanding interests in popular romance studies, particularly in the figure of the male virgin.

There is much to love about this fascinating book, Professor Allan’s first. (Look out for upcoming volumes on the foreskin and hymen, all part of the new “Exquisite Corpse” series on what is left unsaid about the body that Allan is editing for the University of Regina Press—another Canadian prairie city that does, yes, rhyme with the delightful and neglected body part that I can only hope will one day make its way into Allan’s series). I could begin my praise with the design choice of the asterisk that adorns the book’s cover [End Page 1] and chapter headings (with an etymology I’d like to read as “ass-to-risk” but that really means “little star” and that can be used to indicate omission in printing). I love as well the book’s pink endpaper, bringing to mind the glowing tinge of the spanked bottom, the puckered rim of our tender opening. The book is playful and experimental in these ways.

So what is Reading from Behind about, exactly? To what end (if I may, and I fear there’ll be no stopping me) does it serve? Allan’s first line indicates his subject matter: “the role of the anus, the rear, the posterior, the behind, the bottom, the ass in literary theory and cultural criticism” (1). And precisely the omission of such. The individual chapters are uniformly fruitful and enlightening. I learned from them. They consist of a series of often very close readings of key texts that Allan presents as case studies from the “anal archive” (19). These careful readings shine light on texts as varied as Anne Tenino’s m/m romance novel Frat Boy and Toppy, the short story and film Brokeback Mountain, paintings by the Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman, Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge, and two Latin American texts: the Delmira Agustini poem “El Intruso” and the Mexican film Doña Herlinda y su hijo.

Allan’s larger project in urging us to “read from behind” in these chapters is to de-emphasize the standard phallic reading of the texts of culture. The practice of reading from behind directs us to look for anal eroticism and other posterior pleasures that lie buried in texts and too often omitted from textual analysis that is predisposed toward the phallic. Enough of privileging what the penis is up to, privileging penetration, privileging the top! When we read from behind we disrupt such phallocentrism, with its attendant homophobia and misogyny. Allan wants to “rewrite[e] the erotic monopoly of the genitals” (141), to get away from a “sphincter-tightening” approach that always insists on a certain reading (9). He is reading from behind—privileging the bottom—in order to develop a new theory of sexuality that decenters the primacy of the phallus (132); that evades the binary of top/bottom, active/passive, and penetrator/penetrated; that is more plural and global (128).

Where does this book fit into the field of romance studies, the interest of readers of this journal? While Allan works primarily in queer theory and masculinity studies, those with a focus on popular romance will find much of relevance in his text, and not only in the chapter devoted to a close reading of Tenino’s romance novel. Larger themes relevant to romance studies resonate and are discussed throughout the book: explorations of love, romance, and eros in film, poetry, visual art, and fiction, as well as the concept of male virginity and the experience of gay male sexual debut. In terms of the book’s focus on anal sex, such scenes have become increasingly common in popular romance fiction. “Anal is the new oral,” as Allan quotes the pundits (70-71). Especially in erotic romance and in m/m romance, scenes of anal pleasuring are almost run of the mill. Allan’s book helps the student (and author) of popular romance studies think about the meaning of such scenes.

What is left behind by this analysis? A little too often, I fear, clean writing and tight editing. Allan has his writer’s tics of self-reflexive wordiness, of excessive and repetitious quotes and phrases (“I cannot help but admit/think/smile/wonder[twice]/note,” all within pages of each other [86-94]; riffs on “I want to be careful” that appear four times in ch.8; an over-fondness for phrases such as “it must be noted,” “it must be admitted,” and “I am reluctant to”). There is the sort of jargon one might expect but still hope to avoid (e.g., “affective and intellectual responses that work to destabilize and critique how we think about normativity, eroticism, and power, especially when figured in hegemonic and [End Page 2] hierarchical terms” [115]). I found myself wishing for leaner writing—for more anality—in his revision and editing process. Sometimes the sphincter really does need to be tight. Allan’s writing, however, can also delight, as in his reference to “the man who refuses his role and embraces his hole” (38).

A larger issue concerns the focus of the book. At first, the text seems to promise an examination of the buttocks, to explore for us the cultural meanings of the behind. But the rear end covers a whole lot of territory and its topography is not all the same. The cheeks are not the rectum. As Allan himself quotes Eve Sedgwick as saying, “The sexual politics of the ass are not identical to the sexual politics of the asshole” (126). A woman dressed in tight booty shorts that cup her round buns is not the same as a man with lubed-up anus ready for a partner’s fisting. Artistic explorations of these two scenarios offer quite different possibilities for cultural and literary criticism.

Allan opens his introduction with a Jennifer Lopez reference to 2014 as the “year of the booty” (1-2), but I suspect Allan’s text isn’t what she had in mind. The cover blurb trots out Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middleton. All these women are famous, one way or the other, for their derrières—but these women are not discussed in the text. In fact, only rarely discussed is the behind of almost any woman (the narrator of “El Intruso” in Ch.6 may be an exception, as is mention of the minor character Alma in Ch.4’s discussion of Brokeback Mountain).

From this perspective, the book promises more than it delivers. As Allan notes, the anus is the great equalizer (27). While Freud suggests that some of us are born with more potential for anal pleasure than others (33), we all—male, female, gender-queer, and transgender alike—have an anus. I hoped at first that this book would help me think broadly about gender and the bottom. Yet as Allan eventually makes clear in his introduction and as his chapters lay out one by one, his analysis is one of “anal poetics” and primarily concerns masculinity and, more specifically, queer male anal eroticism.

Women think a lot about their rear end: “Does this [dress, skirt, pair of pants] make my butt look big?” is the stereotypical question. The admired, desired, bedazzling booty is an iconic flaunt zone of female figure and fashion, especially in an era of twerking and a playlist of songs ranging from “Fat Bottom Girls” to “Baby Got Back” to “Anaconda” and “All About That Bass.” To have cake to display, a ripe booty to shake: all this is a complex good begging analysis. There is much to be said about a woman’s relationship to her rear in a culture that fetishizes this body part, both celebrating and punishing women who have too much, too little of these posterior curves, who do too much or too little with them. If I were to give Allan’s own book a reading from behind, I’d ask him about this omission: the status of the ass for women as a source of both empowerment and objectification. I wanted Allan to take me through it and shed some light on these gendered dimensions of the behind. Its sashaying fleshiness gives a theorist much to grab onto, I would think. Alas, such is not Allan’s task.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask: my desire, not his. Fair enough. If I find this focus on the male anus a bit narrow—a bit tight for my fit—I’ll readily admit that the behind presents a vast geography and that there’s a peevishness in taking a book to task for what it doesn’t cover. Any book could always do more; no book can do everything. The man does a lot, and he does it well. Let someone else continue his agenda of reading from behind and use it to produce a cultural analysis of female booty. [End Page 3]

It might be better, finally, to focus on what the book does do for me as a reader. Here is one way that I like to judge a book: What new question or idea did it give me? What does it open up? What connections does it help forge? The new question I got from reading Allan’s text is, for me, a very intriguing one: What does it mean to read the romance from behind?

Allan helps us to think about popular romance studies in a fashion perhaps more sideways than from behind—sideways, in that Allan’s interests pertain mainly to a queer male reading of cultural and literary texts, or to a reading of queer male texts. Still, the projects are aligned. Yes, let’s de-emphasize that phallus, for all the reasons Allan articulates. Masculinist and misogynist hegemony has had its day. Allan’s queer theory aligns well with popular romance’s feminist agenda in this regard. His book serves as an excellent example of the inherent mission overlap between feminism, on the one hand, and queer theory and a certain brand of masculinity studies, on the other. Read him for that reason alone, if you’d like greater familiarity with those important fields.

This notion Allan gives us of “reading from behind” is a powerful interpretive tool. It is related to the practice of “reparative reading” that Allan borrows from Sedgwick. A reparative reading of the romance—a reading from behind, a queer reading—is one that rejects a patriarchal and phallic-driven notion of sex and of gender relations and that reads the romance genre as a space of alternatives. Much of the current wave of scholarship in popular romance studies is reparative, exploring these women-centered texts as sites of resistance and possibility.

The more Allan’s book got me thinking about it, the more the popular romance genre struck me as a form of writing from behind. The roles of top and bottom are central to the opening scenarios of traditional romance storytelling, with the alpha hero as top but also, paradoxically, as asshole or “alphahole”, as Wendell and Tan put it in their Beyond Heaving Bosoms (2009). In the heroine’s initial estimation, the hero is often cold, arrogant, intimidating, maybe threatening. Who is more anal than him: obstinate, controlling, emotionally withholding? He will open up, of course. She will end up as “power bottom,” topping from the bottom, or neutralizing the top’s power through that great equalizing force of love.

Allan himself notes how genre fiction such as popular romance occupies a bottom position in the hierarchy of literary studies (65). The genre writes from behind, pushing out into romance stories the character of the patriarchal alpha and then transforming him into the feminist lover, supportive and egalitarian. The genre props up patriarchy only to knock it down. Admires the patriarch, acknowledges his power, even curtsies before him, but then seduces him into prostrating himself, bending over, and taking it up the ass, bareback, like a real man. Romance novels make that big boy learn to love it. Reading Allan’s book gave me this idea: the genre is about buggering patriarchy, over and over and over.

In terms of teaching utility, the book as a whole is probably a bit much for most undergraduates, but individual chapters could be useful in more advanced or specialized undergraduate classes (in literature, film studies, sexuality studies, queer theory) and certainly at the graduate level. The central chapters stand alone as close readings of their respective texts and could easily be assigned individually. This structure is both a strength and a weakness, as the book can feel like a series of knit together and somewhat randomly chosen case studies, particularly as the volume ends very abruptly, without a conclusion or—dare I complain?—a satisfying climax. [End Page 4]

My quibbles, I hasten to note, are only because I want Allan to keep writing and to do great writing, giving us fresh ideas and new ways to read culture on the par with those in Reading from Behind. In the end (I now see this word play everywhere), what Allan’s book yields for popular romance studies is a rich entrée to the cognate fields of queer theory and masculinity studies, bringing romance texts into wider critical conversations. Pick up a copy or order one for your library. Open yourself up (you bottoms). Take the plunge and dive in (for you tops). Either way, shake that booty. It’s speaking to us all, and it’s time we listen. [End Page 5]


“Ravished by Vikings”: The Pre-modern and the Paranormal in Viking Romance Fiction
by Kim Wilkins

[End Page 1]

Maggie realized then, if she had not already, that this was not a modern man who did things according to politically correct rules. He was a Viking warrior with savage sexual appetites and barbarian ways of seduction. An uncivilized lover.

She would have him no other way. (Hill 4474)

The quotation above, taken from Sandra Hill‘s 2001 romance novel Truly, Madly, Viking, is exemplary in how it enacts a double meaning that is central to this essay’s argument about Viking romance fiction, a thriving subgenre of contemporary romance fiction. In this novel, Viking jarl Jorund time travels to modern-day Texas, where he finds love with Maggie, his psychiatrist. On the surface, “she would have him no other way” is a standard affirmation that she likes him just the way he is. The other meaning, though, is that she would not or could not “have him” unless he forced her with his “barbarian ways”. My contention is that the Viking in these romance novels is a symbol of the pre-modern, allowed to be a brutal dominator precisely because he is freed from the restrictions of rational modernity. Moreover, the persistence of the paranormal in these stories marks them as clearly existing outside the general consensus of reality. Socially unacceptable behaviour becomes reframed as part of a fantasy, pre-emptively defusing any criticism that the acts of rape within are meaningful in a contemporary real-world context. Vikings have long been associated with the twin terms “rape and pillage”, and while contemporary renderings of Viking “pillaging” may be a fairly straightforward proposition to discuss, a discussion of contemporary representations of Viking rape is compromised by the emotive nature of the topic of rape, especially male aggression against women. The discourse of “rape culture” across popular media, particularly popular women‘s media, potentially compromises or makes impossible the pleasure of reading about forced sex in literature. It is not the purpose of this essay to argue that such a pleasure should be allowable or condemned. Rather, I follow Angela Toscano’s lead in rejecting the impulse to evaluate such scenes only in terms of how they “affect or reflect the lives of real women”, which limits discussions to how they function as possible mimesis rather than as literary tropes (n. pag). While Toscano is interested in the narrative function of rape, this essay is interested more in the generic function of rape in a particular subgenre. When twenty-first century romance fiction resists twenty-first century feminist censure and self-censure, the subgenre of Viking romance fiction creates a “safe zone” for imaginings of male sexual aggression by representing the men as pre-modern and the context as paranormal.

I adapt the title of this essay from Delilah Devlin’s 2011 novel Ravished by a Viking, which signals male sexual aggression as a key pleasure of the text in large letters on the front cover. The title invites discussion about the term ravishment, pertinent here because it is a word that comes, like Vikings, from the Middle Ages. “Ravissement” at first meant “carrying off a woman” then later “carrying a soul to heaven” then the “secular, affective” meaning of “being ‘carried away‘ emotionally” and from there, carried away with sexual desire (Gradval 5). The word has always represented a slippage from “violent abduction to sexual pleasure” (Gradval 5), which may not be out of place with some medieval notions of love being likened to “a violent experience which happened to you—entered or penetrated you, took possession of you, corrupted your reason and imprisoned you, male and female—against your will” (Vitz 22). Rape and ravishment are expressions of what Gradval would call the same “trope”, that is, the trope of forced sex in literature, whether through forced marriage or trickery, or physical violence, or supernatural agency. In her title, Devlin has [End Page 2] made a conscious choice not to use the word most associated with Vikings and sexual assault (“rape”), but to emphasise the possibility of being swept away by pleasure, even in the experience of being threatened by sexual aggression and violation. In a sense, the semantic slippage performed by the title is also performed by the texts under consideration: sexual aggression does take place, but is constantly framed as a pleasure that exists outside of rational modernity.

Vikings, as noted above, also have their origin in the Middle Ages. They make their first appearance in English in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 787, which records the “first ships of the Danish men that sought land in England” and a welcoming reeve who is slain because “he knew not what they were.” They are called “pagans” and “barbarians” in Aethelward‘s Chronicle; are “seagoing robbers” according to Malmesbury; and known for “burning and plundering and manslaughter” in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, early chroniclers also evidence admiring fascination with the Vikings: for example, with the exoticness of their ships and their perceived attractiveness to English women (Frank 23-27). In fact, Vikings might have been the first counter-culture heroes, an example of the commonly expressed sentiment that monsters of any kind exert powers of attraction as well as powers of repulsion: an idea that clearly underpins the entire paranormal romance genre. Of all the characters that history presents us with, there would be few, if any, better suited to represent both brutal, masculine danger and desire than Vikings.

The Middle Ages are called the Middle Ages for a reason: in the narrative of progress and supercession to which  Western culture subscribes, it sits between the two “great” periods of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. It is in the middle: its function is to define and validate the two bracketing periods. When we reimagine the Middle Ages now, we are very much still saying something about the modern, the thing that has superseded and flattened it: the medieval, according to Fradenburg, secures “for modernity, its intelligibility to itself” (211). The ongoing cultural impulse to represent Vikings as an irrational pre-modern people allows us to compare ourselves favourably against them and be more certain of our rational modernity. As an example, think of the origins of the modern word “berserk”: the bearskins (literally “bear-shirt”) that some Viking warriors wore while in a battle frenzy. I note that an aspect of the berserker legend has always been the possibility that they were actually shape-shifters, an example of the blurring between historical fact and supernatural fantasy that I explore in more detail below.

According to Geraldine Heng, the medieval romance and the contemporary popular romance can both be recognised by the “structure of desire” that drives the narrative (3): an object is desired, and obstacles cause the deferral of resolution to that desire. More specifically, the chivalric romance usually centres around gender and sexuality as well as adventure, and features the idea of courtly love (longing for an object that remains forever out of reach). This idea displays a similar “pattern of desire” and “economy of pleasure” to the contemporary popular romance (Heng 5). Importantly for the argument I present here, the medieval romance often featured supernatural creatures and events. Heng argues that in contemporary representation, the medieval romance has become almost indistinguishable from the lived Middle Ages, to the point that the whole period is “characterised and depicted in later eras as if it were a romance” (2). In the romance, as in contemporary representations of the medieval, fact and fantasy “collide and vanish, each into the other” (2). [End Page 3]

The medieval romance genre that Heng cites above postdated the Viking age by several hundred years, but nonetheless the flattening of the Middle Ages that allows (or perhaps invites) superstition and the supernatural to colour its representation is also apparent when we consider how Vikings are represented across time. In 793, Norse raiders famously sacked the monastery at Lindisfarne on the English northern coast, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle characterises the attack as supernaturally monstrous, heralded by whirlwinds, lightning, and “fyrenne dracan” (fiery dragons) (my translation). The language itself is reminiscent of the apocalyptic language that describes Ragnarok, the mythological end times of the Viking gods: “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea / The hot stars down from heaven are whirled / …. fire leaps high about heaven itself” (Völuspá 57, trans Bellows 24). This elision between history and the supernatural turns up again in the contemporary fantasy novel Wolfsangel. As Vali waits aboard a longship for his first raid with his Viking colleagues, the berserkers begin to chant wildly and a series of images form in his mind: “Odin fighting the Fenris Wolf… gallows and slaughter, fire and blood” (Lachlan 77). Story and history slip in and out of each other from earliest records. The boundaries between historical events of the Viking age and Viking mythology are shown to be porous, tinged with a particular complexion of the supernatural: dark, menacing, apocalyptic. What we see, then, is a privileged relationship developing between brutal pagan masculinity and the paranormal, and it is this relationship that provides an engaging dynamic for the contemporary Viking romance novel. For example, in Tanya Anne Crosby’s Viking’s Prize (2013), protagonist Elienor is an unwilling prophetess who is cursed by paranormal dreams and haunted by accusations of witchcraft; in Sandra Hill’s Truly, Madly, Viking (2011), Jorund is a time-travelling Viking who eventually discovers other time-travelling Vikings, including his vanished brother; and Delilah Devlin’s Ravished by a Viking (2011) is set in the colony of New Iceland on a distant planet, where Vikings have been magically transported by the Norse gods via the mythological bridge Bifrost. It is interesting to note that complementing these traditionally published novels is a thriving subgenre of Twilight fan fiction that reimagines Edward as a Viking, and Isabella as his thrall. The nexus between Viking and vampire has already been explored in a sustained way in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series and is more fully developed in the television series adaptation True Blood through the character of Eric Northman. The Viking, like the vampire, is bound by a different set of cultural rules and expresses a different and dangerous set of drives. It is beyond the scope of this essay to examine these fan fictions as well, not the least reason being that (paradoxically) nothing paranormal takes place in them. But what this intertextuality between Viking romance and Twilight fan fiction may point to is the enduring popularity of romance that features submission, domination, and forced sex, and some of the generic conventions that can make those things more palatable to a twenty-first-century audience.

A great deal of scholarship of romance fiction takes as its objects past iterations of the genre. Given the romance genre, like all genres, is contingent and constantly shifting, criticism can easily become outdated (Vivanco 1061). As Luther has written, the standard trope of the rapist turned true love became far less common after the eighties and nineties (n. pag). Vivanco tells us that it is more likely that twenty-first-century romance novels will explicitly address “issues surrounding gender and sexual politics” (1085). Romance fiction now “at times reveal[s] an ardent, feminist awareness of the extent to which patriarchal societies can seek to control women” (1077). Ravished by a Viking’s protagonist Honora is a [End Page 4] smart and powerful spaceship captain who represents a complete subversion of the women’s roles her Viking love interest has come to expect: “Didn’t she know women were meant to be soft and yielding?” (68). Maggie, in Truly, Madly, Viking has a doctorate in psychology and Jorund must learn to hide his “show-vein-is” (i.e. chauvinist) tendencies around her (2831). Elienor in Viking’s Prize is the feisty heroine so valued by historical fiction: an “independent, strong, feisty, and passionate” woman, around whom the “silent rank and file” of unexceptional women exist. The feisty heroine “must be exceptional”; she “lives a life less ordinary” (Tolmie 146), and her feistiness is presented for a female audience’s reading pleasure. In many ways, these stories represent feminist values, and they do it quite naturally and smoothly: there is no sense that it is uncommon for twenty-first-century romance fiction to operate in this manner. However, the trope of ravishment is central to the erotics of every story. In each case, male aggression is presented as uninvited and insistent. Honora has to physically fight Dagr off: “she sputtered and slammed her fists against his chest” (Devlin 69); after Elienor tells Alarik, “You have no claim over me, nor shall I give you anything freely!” (895) he sexually assaults her while she sleeps: “he found himself undulating softly into the sweet warmth between her thighs” (Crosby 2134); and Jorund uses threats as foreplay: “You will bend to my will one day” (Hill 1896). The volume of scenes across this genre that operate as these do supports the idea that male sexual aggression is a key pleasure of the genre. The acknowledgement that reading pleasure is gained from representations of forced sex presents an undeniable conundrum for readers and theorists. As Katie Roiphe points out, such imaginings in popular fiction “seem to be saying something about modern women that nearly everyone wishes wasn’t said” (n. pag).

Paranormal romance author Anne Rice says that a woman “has the right to pretend she’s being raped by a pirate if that’s what she wants to pretend” (in Dowd, n. pag), co-opting the language of feminism (“has the right”, “what she wants”) to support her assertion. What is revealing about Rice’s proclamation is that she needs to say it at all. It is framed as a response in anticipation of the feminist censure that attends representation of rape fantasies, and fantasies of domination and submission. Certainly the widespread success of Fifty Shades of Grey aroused much popular consternation, exemplified in Frank Bruni’s article for the New York Times that took on the “post-feminist power dynamics” of both Fifty Shades and popular HBO television series Girls: “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess” (n. pag, original emphasis). Postfeminism is a term mostly used to refer to women “who are thought to benefit from the women’s movement” but “do not push for further political change”. The opening quotation of this essay, where Maggie explicitly expresses pleasure that Jorund is not “politically correct” exemplifies the postfeminist outlook. Postfeminists, according to Aronson, are seen by feminists as “depoliticized and individualistic” and these tendencies are associated with “the ‘death’ of feminism” (Aronson 904-05). Gill agrees that the tendencies of postfeminism work against the goals of the feminist movement, citing particularly the postfeminist “resurgence of ideas of natural sexual difference” (158). Writing about romance fiction specifically, Harzewski also identifies “the pleasures of femininity” afforded “through the recognition of sexual difference” as an integral concern of postfeminism (Harzewski 3469). Not every theorist is as sanguine as Harzewski, with Gill [End Page 5] noting that the reinstatement of natural sexual difference serves to “(re)-eroticize power relations between men and women” with the end result that “discourses of natural gender difference can be used to freeze in place existing inequalities by representing them as inevitable and… pleasurable” (Gill 158-59). Bonomi, Altenburger, and Walton point to popular fiction’s role in representing as positive what they call “dangerous” ideas of abuse against women (733), while Philadelphoff-Puren implicates a certain strain of romance novels—those marked by a “consistently violent representation of heterosexual sex” (32) and the heroine’s “dissimulating ‘no’” (39)—in the low conviction rates of rapists, arguing that these novels have shaped “a legal-romantic imaginary which has material effects on the lives of women who charge men with rape” (38, original emphasis). These reactions exemplify what Roiphe describes as the “upstanding feminist tsk-tsking” about the choices postfeminists make about what to read and what to watch (n. pag). In this discourse, clear discomfort exists around the idea of male aggression as pleasurable to women. The genre of Viking romance fiction, then, creates a more comfortable space for reading pleasure by projecting rape into the past, and obscuring it with the veil of the numinous. The pleasure of ravishment is accepted more readily when it is represented within a context that is neither “modern” nor “normal”: rather, it is pre-modern and paranormal. The genre uses a number of observable moves, related to the pre-modern and the paranormal, to manage the transformation of a potentially guilty reading pleasure into a less-encumbered reading pleasure.

Essentialised sexual difference is a key feature of this genre. Vikings represent an unreconstructed masculinity that is almost fetishized, and which is presented as impossible for modern men to attain. The difference between the Viking male and the modern male is most clearly evidenced in Hill’s Truly, Madly, Viking because Jorund has time-travelled to present-day Texas, allowing for deep contrast. When Jorund sees men in fashionable cowboy boots, he says, “High-heeled boots on men! Are the men of this place demented? Do they not know how ridiculous they look? Do their toes not hurt and their ankles not ache at the end of a day spent in men’s work?” (Hill 664). Jorund’s default assumption is that men work with their bodies, and that anything that interferes with that is “ridiculous”; but in a way it echoes contemporary criticism of the “metrosexual” man as somebody who privileges fashion over traditional male pursuits. Modern man’s inability to match the essential masculinity of the Viking is exemplified when another male character dresses up as a Viking: “On his head was a long, blond wig that Jorund could swear he’d seen on a scullery maid just yestereve. On his upper arms were two makeshift bracelets formed from strips of tinfoil, a product used in modern kitchens to save food” (2018). The particular complexion of the humour in this description is not simply derived from the sharp difference between real Viking and make-believe Viking, but also from the way the dressed-up man is feminised by being associated with women’s accoutrements (wig, bracelets) and domestic work (maids, kitchens, food preservation). A similar strongly drawn image of the inability of the modern to be as masculine as the pre-modern is a scene in which a man dressed in a toga bends over to reveal “bare flabby buttocks” (2016). The modern man is not associated here with sexual aggression, rather with femininity and flaccidity. He is no sexual threat; in fact, he is barely sexual.

Even the modern day alpha male pales in comparison to the authentic masculinity of the Viking. Maggie’s ex-husband is a surgeon, arguably the top of the tree in modern masculine hierarchies. Maggie explains that he had aspirations as a thrill seeker: “He [End Page 6] wanted to …. [s]et a record for skydiving. Climb the highest mountains. Race cars. Scuba dive” (3144). Jorund, by contrast, finds the idea of seeking danger for empty reasons puzzling. In Viking times he had been close to death when “a Saracen horse soldier had… put a scimitar to his throat while dangling him off the side of a cliff.” This experience is presented as a genuinely fearful moment—“had not felt such fright”—an authentic male experience of battle with another authentic male (2871). The challenges facing Jorund’s performances of masculinity present real consequences; the modern thrill seeker’s are consequence-free.

Jorund’s focus on manly physical activity colours his attitudes to the other patients in the psychiatric institution he finds himself in. He takes particular interest in paraplegic Gulf War veteran Steve: “Even those who live in those wheeled chairs should be working muscles that are still alive,” he says (1940). His interest extends to Steve’s mental state. Steve is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Jorund explains to Maggie that he is aware of a kind of shellshock among his own people “after a particularly gruesome battle” (1629). This connection across time, however, is not completely shared: Jorund is quick to point out he speaks “not from personal experience” (1629). Within a few weeks, Jorund has instigated a physical activity program to help rehabilitate his fellow inmates, particularly employing the pre-modern activities of sword fighting and rock hurling as a way of helping these modern men reclaim their masculine agency.

The hypermasculinity of these characters functions to heighten the contrast between male and female characters. This eroticization of sexual difference is often focalised through the female viewpoint. Female characters in these scenes seem to lose control of thought and rationality when confronted with the erotic potential of this contrast. Maggie notes that when Jorund’s “maleness [is] pressed against her femaleness, sanity seemed to be lacking” (Hill 1846), and Elienor’s thoughts turn “against her will” to “the firmness of [Alarik’s] flesh beneath her palms as he’d carried her out from the kirken” (Crosby 141). Honora even loses control of her basic bodily functions when she reluctantly agrees to group sex with Dagr and his friends: she “imagined how she must look, her slight frame dwarfed by three large Vikings, and she grew so excited she gulped for air” (Devlin 152). Another pleasure that comes from this representation of contrast is that it allows women to see the desire available in pre-modern notions of feminine beauty: for example, Elienor’s “generous curves” (Crosby 626), or the “soft, full curves” and “ample breast” of Viking woman Tora, who serves as Dagr’s sex thrall (Devlin 37). These notions of attractive female bodies are offered as essentialised archetypes that the pre-modern man understands as perpetually desirable: Jorund notes that Maggie “thought she carried too much weight, but she was wrong. Men did not like skin-and-bone females…. On that issue, men were men” (Hill 3491).

Often, this eroticised difference between men and women is extended imaginatively to signify not just contrast, but conflict. Alarik from Viking’s Prize finds such conflict arousing when Elienor resists him: “Tightening his hold upon the woman’s hair, he rose from his stooped position, hauling her up against him as he came to his feet, and the feel of her soft body hardened his more fully” (559). In this quotation, contrast between masculinity and femininity (“her soft body hardened his”) shares the same space as aggressive domination (dragging Elienor by her hair). The conflict between male and female is at the heart of the sexual pleasure the main characters experience in Ravished by a Viking: “we battle every time we fuck”, Dagr tells Honora (Devlin 162), and his [End Page 7] internalisations during their lovemaking bear this notion out: “crushed beneath his weight” she “smack[s] his arm”, and he compares her protests to that of a “kitten”, which makes him “bark” with laughter (306). Even when not playing out actual physical resistance and domination, aggression infuses the language around lovemaking. “When I look at you, I want to make fierce love with you,” Jorund tells Maggie (3368), and shortly after he continues, “The only question in my mind is whether, this first time, I should woo you or conquer you” (3441); Alarik achieves orgasm with a “powerful thrust and a savage cry” (Crosby 3507); and when Dagr and Honora first have sex in Ravished by a Viking, it is described as “no gentle taking”, peppered with verbs such as “prodded”, “gritted”, “ground”, “growled”, “slammed”, and “clawed” (78-79).

The most common metaphors employed in this contrast/conflict of the masculine and feminine are the tools of pre-modern warfare. Jorund threatens to “teach [Maggie] with my callused hands and hard staff not to tease a fighting man” (Hill 3368), and Dagr describes his erection as “harder than the tempered steel of his father’s sword” (Devlin 80). Even the Viking lover’s face is compared to pre-modern weaponry: “His gaze fixed upon the horizon, his expression hard as unyielding steel. His features were well chiseled like that of his namesake’s, the hawk, and his pewter gray eyes had been likened to the silver of his sword, Dragvendil, for they could slice into the heart of a man with the ease of a fine gilt-edged blade” (Crosby 181). These tools of battle create a curious mix of responses in the female protagonist. “The lethal chill” of Alarik’s “silver-flecked eyes” sends “shivers down [Elienor’s] spine” in a moment of fearful apprehension (Crosby 1371). Later in the same novel, with the same man, it is desire that creates the same physiological response: “A chill raced down Elienor’s spine…. The possibility that Alarik might kiss her made her heartbeat quicken and her breath catch in her throat” (Crosby 1536). Ultimately, though, enjoyment is derived from this battle of the sexes: “By the blessed virgin, was it supposed to feel so good to be caressed by one’s enemy?” (Crosby 488). The playing out of surrender and conquest is invariably shown to be pleasurable.

The pre-modern is the particular place that these pleasures of sexual aggression can go because of the long-held association between Vikings and rape. In these novels, the impulse to ravish is shown to be cultural for Vikings, part of their inbuilt drive to dominate by force, and an essential aspect that makes them who they are. The texts bear this essentialism out in the frank acknowledgement about forced sex in Viking culture. Alarik’s aunt tells Elienor how she was married against her will and found happiness. Dagr’s brother Eirik reflects in a pragmatic way on the sex thralls in his culture that “act the whore” while restrained by metal cuffs (6). Jorund is frank about rape in his family: “My brother Rolf advocated never asking for permission first. He said ‘tis better to do the act, then apologize later, but he was probably talking about something involving sex” (Hill 3300). Such stories arouse Maggie’s horror, which Jorund shrugs off with the declaration, “That is life in my land” (3121).

The essential pre-modern drive to dominate is also represented in scenes of rape in its most direct sense of forced sex accompanied by violence: “female servants … screamed for mercy beneath the abusing bodies of …Northmen” on the same ship that Elienor is transported on (710). The Viking lovers are often shown contemplating rape. Jorund’s earliest reflections on Maggie include: “He could break her slim wrists with a snap of his fingers. He could lift her by the waist and toss her over his shoulder. He could press her to the bed, and…Well, he could do things to her” (903); while Alarik’s first reaction to the [End Page 8] feisty Elienor is to be “sorely tempted to lie [the] wench flat and ride her against her will” (627).  Importantly, this reflection is immediately followed by “But he would not.” Having established that the Viking lovers are Vikings (with the impulse to rape), the books then show these men performing self-restraint that indicates growing affection is present: Dagr’s sensitivity to Honora’s sexual needs “surprised her. She’d thought the savage marauder… [would]… force her quickly onto his cock” (Devlin 75). Nonetheless, the sex acts in these novels at the very least redefine widely held notions of what constitutes appropriate consent, and their pre-modern protagonists allow that perceived grey area of consent to be played out in a way that least offends modern sensibilities.

The ultimate symbol of Viking pre-modern (even animalistic) hypermasculinity is the huge erect penis that each love interest possesses, an extension of the “size and sinew” of the men themselves (Crosby 3974). Devlin calls it a “Viking-sized cock” (74), Jorund needs three attempts to wrangle his “bull-size erection” into Maggie’s vagina (Hill 3478), and Alarik notes he must prepare Elienor “for the size of him” (Crosby 3365). These men exist outside the realm of normal in a similar way to the heroes of the fornaldarsögur or legendary sagas of the Vikings. Sitting between the more realist style of the family sagas and the full-blown mythological retellings of the Eddas, the legendary sagas share with these Viking romance novels the blurring between realism and the supernatural. In some ways, the “Viking-sized” erection is supernature literalised. The Viking erection affords a connection between the hypermasculinity associated with the pre-modern and the rejection of realism associated with the paranormal. It is a clear mark of a superheroic body, a mythical giant phallus associated more with fantasy than with realistic representation.

As I have argued above, there exists a special relationship between Vikings and the paranormal, acknowledged by Jorund himself when pressed to explain how he rationalises his travelling through time: “Mayhap the Norse culture is more inclined to believe in the spectacular than yours. Mayhap, because of our harsh environment, we tend to have more hope in the gods” (Hill 1301). Note that he ties his belief back to his pre-modernity, citing the harsh environment he is native to, and his belief and faith in pagan gods rather than secular rationality. The paranormal is another way that rape is projected out of the here and now in these novels, making it safer or more comfortable to imagine and gain reading pleasure from.

One way the paranormal is employed is to set the context of the story well beyond the realm of consensual reality. Jorund is transported to the modern world by a killer whale. With his pre-modern, supernatural-accepting mindset, he sees this method of transportation as heroic: “No doubt there would even be a praise-poem honouring Jorund, the warrior who rode in the cradle of a killer whale’s mouth and lived to tell the tale” (291). However, for the modern characters, Jorund’s story prompts them to lock him up in the Rainbow Psychiatric Hospital. The modern readers who belong to the same present are, by extension, implicated in a culture in which the irrational is punished by imprisonment and diagnosed and treated with medical science: law and medicine being two significant symbols of modern rationality. Jorund reflects on being forced to wear what he calls a “torture shert” and “ankle restraints” with “bars on his windows” while Maggie treats his delusions of time travel, insisting that he employ the very post-medieval psychiatric method of examining his own feelings: “How do you feel about that?” she asks during their treatment sessions of his resistance to being imprisoned (960). In a later scene, Jorund [End Page 9] breaks out of his straitjacket, a feat of superhuman strength that demonstrates the powerful dispositions of the pre-modern and the paranormal to erupt through the strictures of rational modernity (1348). This dynamic of attempted modern control being usurped by overwhelming Viking power is echoed in sex acts in the texts. Such eruptions of the pre-modern are presented as patently at odds with consensual reality, and so the sex acts too are projected outside the real, and into the realm of fantasy.

Another way that the paranormal works to consign the issue of rape to the outside of serious contemporary discourse is to play up the risible nature of the paranormal elements. Certainly, Truly, Madly, Viking veers often into a comedic tone, especially with regards to time travel: “Maggie put her notebook aside and rubbed at the furrows in her forehead with the fingers of one hand. ‘A killer whale brought you here… from Iceland? A killer whale with bad breath?’”(1097). Many of the paranormal elements of the romance genre could be seen as ridiculous or laughable if removed from their context. As I have argued elsewhere, one of the ways that genres work is that those on the inside (readers and writers) accept the reality presented within the texts without question: supernatural activity makes sense in the genre. From the outside, though, to a reader unfamiliar with generic conventions, the supernatural may seem ridiculous or even arouse contempt: “[i]t is easy to trivialise something that appears, on the surface, to be silly or childish” (Wilkins 274). When Maggie teases Jorund by comparing time travel to Santa Claus, Hill allows the possibility that the supernatural conceit is faintly ridiculous (3748). The erotics of the text, then, may also be framed as frivolous, a bit of harmless fun. The possibility that the supernatural elements allow the texts to occupy a space outside serious discourse is apparent in reader reactions as registered on sites such as Goodreads. One review for Ravished by a Viking starts with, “I HAD to buy this book, just because of the title and the premise of Vikings in space!!” As the reader goes on to note, this is not a text to be taken seriously: “I’m expecting a total cheese-fest” (Jeanine n. pag); while a review on the same site for Truly, Madly, Viking describes the book as an “[u]napologetically cheesy … very light, suspend-your-disbelief… time travel romance” (Yz the Whyz n. pag). The presentation of the paranormal elements means that the serious themes in the book, especially that of sexual violence, have been successfully reframed as too light and “cheesy” to be paid serious consideration.

Moreover, the paranormal elements can be seen as linked intrinsically to the erotic elements. As I wrote above, the Viking erection is the most obvious symbol of the conflation of pre-modern and paranormal with erotic pleasure. In Viking’s Prize, the otherworldly state of dreaming is also implicated in this conflation. Elienor has prophetic dreams, which she tries to hide because they open her to accusations of witchcraft, a crime for which her mother was executed. When she has her dream visions, they are unwelcome and unsettling: “The merest notion that she might meet the same fate as did her mother made her knees weak” (259). In one of these dreams, she sees the face of the Viking who eventually enslaves her, and on first sight of him while awake, she is shocked and horrified: “That face! Sweet Jesu—that face! She recalled it from her dream and shuddered” (480-91). However, it is through dreams that Alarik is able to show Elienor his ability to be gentle and sensitive, when he comforts her when she cries out in her sleep; and ultimately dreams allow her to see Alarik’s fate and save him from it. As well as their paranormal potential, dreams for Elienor have erotic potential. When Alarik touches her naked body without consent in the night and she half-wakes, she tells herself it is “naught but a dream… a [End Page 10] hazy… pleasant… dream” and reflects that she “never wanted to waken” (2139). In this example, unsought sexual contact is allowed to occupy the same place as patently non-real and paranormal prophetic visions. Elienor reflects on the reality or otherwise of dreams, both prophetic and erotic, in these terms: “In reality, how could she even be certain that her dreams were anything more than her own fancy, she reasoned” (2707). The evocative word pairs—reality/dreams, fancy/reason—function as a kind of manifesto for how the text should be read. To paraphrase: in reality, how could imaginings of rape and sexual violence be considered more than fantasy to a reasonable person? Another key word in this regard is the word “witch”, which appears as the designation of a particular kind of paranormal character (Elienor) but also features repeatedly in the word “bewitch”, used in its sense to mean an overwhelming attraction, which Alarik associates with Elienor: “what [was it] about her bewitching eyes that made him lose all sense and reason?” (1826). Once again, sense and reason (markers of the modern) are presented as things in opposition to the paranormal and in opposition to the sexually aggressive erotics of the text.

Vikings rape. It is one of the things that modern culture understands about Vikings, whether or not history supports the notion with detailed evidence. It is a notion that holds sway as tenaciously as the notion that Vikings wore horned helmets (they didn’t). Vikings also share a privileged relationship with the paranormal. Their gods have become our superheroes and even the gritty, realist mode of Michael Hirst’s television series Vikings (2013) is interspersed with supernatural visions of the gods and Valkyries. The trope of forced sex in romance fiction has found itself under scrutiny and pressure since the feminist movement, and even more so now as women’s media, especially e-media and social media, grow increasingly concerned with what is called “rape culture”. Popular blog-site Jezebel, for example, lists the term as one of its most frequent tags. Viking romance fiction, then, is the perfect genre for fantasies of forced sex to comfortably be represented. These scenes are patently not real and patently not of the here-and-now, and thus can function as a safe zone for pleasurable, imaginative fantasies about male sexual aggression. They can also function as a kind of resistance to the detractors who want to see the romance genre, as Toscano argues, “as a kind of field study of women’s sexuality”, often with a view to condemnation (n. pag). A post-script on the bottom of Edvard/Bella Viking/vampire fan fiction “My Viking” provides a lovely summation of my argument: “[N]o negative comments on Edvard being too forceful with Bella”, author sheviking writes, anticipating possible censure for the “savage sensation” represented within. “He’s a Viking after all”. [End Page 11]

List of works consulted

Aronson, Pamela. “Feminists or ‘Postfeminists’?: Young Women’s Attitudes toward Feminism and Gender Relations.” Gender and Society 17.6 (2003): 903-922. Print.

Bellows, Henry Adams, trans. The Poetic Edda. New York: The American-Scandinavian Association, 1923. Print.

Bonomi, Amy E., Lauren E., Altenburger, and Nicole L Walton,. “‘Double Crap!’ Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey.Journal of Women’s Health 22.9 (2013):  733-744. Print.

Bruni, Frank. “The Beaker Sex.” NYTimes. 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 June 2014.

Crosby, Tanya Anne. Viking’s Prize. New York: Oliver-Heber Books, 2013. Kindle file.

Devlin, Delilah. Ravished by a Viking. New York: Berkley Heat, 2011. Print.

Dowd, Maureen. “She’s Fit to Be Tied.” NYTimes. 31 Mar. 2012. Web. 2 June 2014.

Fradenburg, Louise. “‘So that we may Speak of them’: Enjoying the Middle Ages.” New Literary History 28.2 (1997): 205-230. Print.

Frank, Roberta. “Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool: Carol, Vikings, and Anglo-Scandinavian England.” Representations 100 (2007): 23-33. Print.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007): 147-166. Print.

Gravdal, Kathryn. Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. Chicklit and Postfeminism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Kindle file.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

Hill, Sandra. Truly, Madly, Viking. New York: Love Spell, 2000. Kindle file.

Jeanine. Weblog comment. Ravished by A Viking. 20 Jun. 2011. Web. 14 Jun. 2014.

Lachlan, M.D. Wolfsangel. London: Gollancz, 2010. Print.

Luther, Jessica. “Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism.” The Atlantic. 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2013.

Philadelphoff-Puren, Nina. “Contextualising Consent: The Problem of Rape and Romance.” Australian Feminist Studies 20:46 (2005): 31-42. Print.

Roiphe, Katie. “Working Women’s Fantasies.”” Newsweek Online. 10 Jul. 2012. Web. 4 Jun. 2014.

sheviking. My Viking. 11 May 2011. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.

Swanton, Michael, trans. and ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. Print.

Tolmie, Jane. “Medievalism and the Fantasy Heroine.” Journal of Gender Studies 15.2 (2006): 145-159. Print.

Toscano, Angela R. “A Parody of Love: The Narrative Uses of Rape in Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies. 2.2 (2012). Web. 21 Dec. 2013.

Vitz, Evelyn Burge. “Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections.” Romantic Review 88.1 (1997): 1-26. Print.

[End Page 12]

Vivanco, Laura. “Feminism and Early Twenty‐First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060-1089. Print.

Wilkins, Kim. “Popular Genres and the Australian Literary Community: The Case of Fantasy Fiction.” Journal of Australian Studies 32.2 (2008): 265-278. Print.

Yz the Whyz. Weblog comment. Truly Madly Viking. 17 Nov. 2010. Web. 14 Jun. 2014.

[End Page 13]



When Sleeping Beauty Wakes: Spectacle and Romantic Fantasy In Twilight (2008)
by Athena Bellas

[End Page 1]

In Twilight (2008), heroine Bella’s fantasy sequences repeatedly set out and revise the romance narrative of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale. In particular, these fantasy sequences revise the theme of spectacle in ways that challenge the conception of the feminine adolescent figure as romantic object, a passive spectacle to be scrutinized by a male gaze. Instead, vampire Edward is presented as Bella’s object of desire, and his image is spectacularized, associated with the visual excesses of pattern, lace, and sparkles. This perversion of gendered categories of the image and romance narrative allows for a new set of relations to emerge in which the girl is able to articulate and claim a desiring gaze. In revising this element of the traditional ‘Sleeping Beauty’ narrative, popularized by Charles Perrault (1697) and the Brothers Grimm (1857), Bella claims her fantasy romance scenarios as a rebellion, creating the potential to include other possible modes of ‘doing girlhood,’[1] including the capacity for authorship, protest, dissatisfaction, and the clear articulation of desire and a desiring gaze.

The ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale is frequently understood by fairy tale scholars like Marcia K. Lieberman and Jack Zipes as a metaphor for the adolescent girl’s acculturation into feminine adulthood signalled by the happy ending resolution of heterosexual romance, marriage, and in some versions, motherhood. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels, and the blockbuster films based on the novels, certainly follow this conservative heteronormative ‘Sleeping Beauty’ resolution. Teen protagonist Bella is ‘awakened’ by her Prince Charming, vampire Edward, they marry, have a baby, and go on to spend eternity together as a family. Like Sleeping Beauty, Bella’s rite-of-passage or ‘awakening’ works towards inducting her into the idealised feminine roles of wife and mother. Several scholars have written about this heteronormative narrative movement in Twilight as retrograde and conservative (Veldman-Genz; Platt; Seifert). However, this paper challenges the simplicity of this reading of Twilight. It deploys a feminist poststructuralist methodology in order to locate points of resistance and innovation in teen film, identifying the ways in which the terrain of girlhood can be expanded to incorporate new and previously unthought-of iterations of power and agency. Chris Weedon writes that the aim of feminist poststructuralism is to ‘understand existing power relations and to identify areas and strategies for change…to explain the working of power on behalf of specific interests and to analyse the opportunities for resistance to it’ (40). I deploy this methodology in the study of this teen screen revision of the fairy tale because it offers a dual optic through which firstly to interrogate and deconstruct the status quo gender relations embedded in and perpetuated by popularised and canonised versions of the fairy tale. Secondly, this optic then works to  highlight ruptures and iterations of girls’ resistance, rebellion, and agency in the film’s revision This is a significant theoretical move for both girlhood studies and teen film studies, for, as Alison Jones argues, this feminist poststructuralist methodology becomes ‘part of the process of enlarging the possible discourses on/for girls and thus the range of feminine subject positions available to them in practice. Or, put another way, we can contribute to increasing the number of ways girls can “be”’ (162). The purpose of this article, then, is to identify the ways in which these ruptures can surface on the teen screen, and how Twilight’s Bella resists the status quo and expands feminine adolescence into new territories through fantasy.

It is clear that many scholars have focused on Bella’s narrative journey post-awakening into feminine adulthood. But this teen screen ‘Sleeping Beauty’ text also includes a very significant labouring of this conservative resolution and Bella’s induction [End Page 2] into the strictures of womanhood. As Maria Leavenworth points out, ‘[t]he Twilight saga is not an extended series in the same sense [as a television serial], but it similarly resists closure, and specifically romantic closure, in the first three texts’ (original emphasis 78). In addition to the delay and resistance of closure inherent in the serial format of the text, Twilight’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenes, which focus on Bella’s dreaming and fantasy images of a beautified Edward in particular, dramatically halt narrative development, becoming points of visual and temporal excess which trouble the linear logic of the narrative and the conservative work of closure. It is in this fantasy space that Twilight’s most subversive, rebellious, and resistant moments of ‘doing girlhood’ arise. These points of temporal and visual excess in Bella’s fantasy sequences rupture and reconfigure the gender relations embedded in the earlier ‘Sleeping Beauty’ text, and this rupture provides space for new positions for the girl heroine to adopt in the romance narrative.

The Twilight series certainly participates in postfeminist cultural ideals about femininity, particularly through the paradigm of ‘active hero/passive heroine’ (Taylor 34), a return to domesticity via the glorification of marriage and motherhood (Negra 47; Renold and Ringrose 329), and the obliteration of personal independence in favour of romantic connection (Gill 218; McRobbie 543). However, this paper shows that this postfeminist ideal of girlhood and feminine acculturation is also significantly challenged, interrupted, and even rejected at times during Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy and dream sequences. With a particular focus on the fantasy and dream sequences that especially proliferate throughout the film text Twilight, I argue that Bella productively disrupts the discourse of feminine beauty and desirability, which requires girls to silence their own desire whilst simultaneously presenting a desirable image for a heterosexual male gaze.[2] I therefore consider this unruly fantasy element of the romance, which challenges and ruptures discourses that seek to govern girlhood through sexist power structures, central to a feminist reading of the text.

Twilight’s unruly fantasy elements, which test these sexist structures and gendered boundaries, include an articulation of gender rebellion. Moments of gender rebellion are significant to note because they work ‘against emphasised femininity, a discourse that reinforces women’s subordination to men’ (Kelly et al. 22). These moments are, as Jessica Laureltree Willis points out, ones in which girls can ‘invent and invert notions of gender’ (101). Willis further writes that using ‘imagination as a resource’ is one way in which girls exercise agency because it is here that they can find ‘spaces for manoeuvring within cultural possibilities for re-conceptualising notions of gender’ (109). In the fantasy sequences presented from Bella’s point of view, Bella temporarily rejects a central stricture that seeks to define and delimit girlhood: the discourse that places the girl as object of heterosexual masculine desire. Bella’s rejection of this stricture defies the paradigm of feminine passivity and submission that pervades the Perrault and Grimm versions of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale. These fantasy sequences not only significantly revise the gender dynamics of the fairy tale, but also provide an expansive imaginative space through which Bella explores new and potentially empowering ways of ‘doing girlhood’ and engaging with romance.

Elizabeth Cowie’s theorisation of fantasy is immensely useful for my reading of Twilight. In her psychoanalytic account of cinematic fantasy, Cowie argues that it ‘involves, is characterised by, not the achievement of desired objects, but the arranging of, a setting out of, desire; a veritable mise-en-scene of desire…The fantasy depends not on particular [End Page 3] objects, but on their setting out and the pleasure of fantasy lies in the setting out, not in the having of objects’ (159). She goes on to suggest that in such a setting out, the spectator is presented with ‘a varying of subject positions so that the subject takes up more than one position and thus is not fixed’ (160).[3] Fantasy may therefore provide a significant challenge and rupture to cultural discourses that seek to fix, stabilise, normalise, and restrict girlhood, as it is a practice of setting out and exploring multiple possibilities for being in the world. Furthermore, it provides a method for theorizing girls and girlhood (both for the girl in the film’s diegesis, and the ideal girl spectator that the text addresses) as active and in flux rather than as fixed and static categories. This variability of objects, positions, and ‘settings out’ provides an invitation to explore multiple, contradictory, and perhaps challenging new ways of doing girlhood. In Twilight, Bella designs fantasy sequences in which possible modes of femininity that fall outside of the definitional boundaries of ‘good’ girlhood can be engaged. This reconfigures gendered relations in fantasy, affording the heroine a position from which to articulate her desire and enact a desiring gaze. In this way, Bella’s fantasy sequences are a setting out, an invitation to spectatorial identification with a teen girl gaze and desire.

The exploration of ‘alternative universes’ in which the normative rules that seek to define and delimit girlhood according to the requirements of patriarchal culture can be broken is central to the genres of girls’ fantasy (Blackford 3). Bella’s alternative fantasy universe, which she constructs in the privacy of her own bedroom, includes the breaking of several normative rules that govern girlhood, replacing them with more agentic possibilities for girlhood. Instead of submitting to the notion that girls have little or no control over the processes of their rite of passage, Bella creates a fantasy space that she has authored and designed. This provides a significant opening for reconfiguring her experience of girlhood in order to include new and potentially empowering elements. Spectatorial engagement with this fantasy could therefore mean an engagement with these new articulations of girlhood, providing an opportunity to fantasise about doing girlhood differently. Indeed, Willis argues that media representations of ‘female agency…located within the imaginary realm’ can provide ‘alternate perspectives on gender and subjectivity’ and thus offer readers and spectators ‘spaces in which girls are not bound by the normative rules or roles of a society’ (106-7).

The potential for this space to act as an invitation to fantasy is important for theorising an active teen spectatorial position. In her work on soap opera spectatorship, Ien Ang writes that

‘the pleasure of fantasy lies in its offering the subject an opportunity to take up positions which she could not assume in real life: through fantasy she can move beyond the structural constraints of everyday life and explore other, more desirable situations, identities, lives. In this respect, it is unimportant whether these imaginary scenarios are “realistic” or not: the appeal of fantasy lies precisely in that it can create imagined worlds which can take us beyond what is possible in the “real” world’ (93).

She concludes that ‘[f]antasy and fiction, then, are safe spaces of excess in the interstices of ordered social life where one has to keep oneself strategically under control’ (95). Ang’s theorisation of spectatorial engagement with fantasy provides a way of reading Twilight’s [End Page 4] invitation to identification. Bella’s fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenarios, which ‘move beyond the structural constraints’ that govern and keep girlhood ‘under control,’ provide an invitation to spectatorial engagement with an imaginary world in which those governing forces have been replaced with alternative, perhaps more desirable, positions and possibilities for feminine adolescence and for engaging in romance narratives.

The romance narrative of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fairy tale has been vigorously critiqued by feminist scholars, who point out the sexist dynamic of feminine adolescent passivity and masculine dominance that the tale represents and even promotes.[4] In its culturally pervasive Perrault and Grimm versions, the tale hinges on an encounter between feminine beauty and passivity which is represented as essential to being desirable, and an active, dominating male prince. This encounter places the unmoving and unconscious girl at the centre of a scene of spectacle, upholding sexist structures of the gendered image and gaze. Indeed, feminist scholars like Rowe, Lieberman, and Kolbenschlag have pointed out that this privileging of feminine glamour and passivity reflects the expectations and restrictions placed on girls and women in contemporary culture. This research revealed how the tale upholds the patriarchal script of feminine passivity and subservience to masculine authority, and furthermore, that the tale shrouds this disturbing script in the guise of romantic love between the prince and princess. Twilight both participates in and yet significantly challenges this tradition to create opportunities for subversive revisions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’s’ sexist gender dynamic.

Feminine passivity seems to be embedded in the rite of passage of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tradition. In the anonymous fourteenth century telling of the tale, the romance Perceforest and Giambattista Basile’s version of the tale, ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ (1634), the prince rapes and impregnates the princess as she lies in her enchanted comatose state, inducting her (unwillingly) into the role of mother. While Perrault and the Grimms removed this extreme violation in their more culturally pervasive versions of the tale, the sexist paradigm of feminine passivity versus masculine dominance remains in the narrative of the helpless maiden and the brave, active prince. When the heroine awakes from her slumber and completes her rite-of-passage into womanhood, she is promptly installed in the roles of wife and mother. Lieberman writes that ‘since the heroines are chosen for their beauty…not for anything they do…they seem to exist passively until they are seen by the hero, or described to him. They wait, are chosen, and are rewarded’ with marriage (189). Lieberman elaborates that in this extreme passivity, the heroine has only her beauty to offer, which is most often represented in the tale as ‘a girl’s most valuable asset, perhaps her only valuable asset’ (188). In both the Perrault and Grimm versions, the authors  describe  the figure of Sleeping Beauty as pure spectacle. Perrault describes the scene of the prince’s discovery in terms that highlight and spectacularize passive feminine beauty: ‘he entered a chamber completely covered with gold and saw the most lovely sight he had ever looked upon – there on a bed with the curtains open on each side was a princess who seemed to be about fifteen or sixteen and whose radiant charms gave her an appearance that was luminous and supernatural’ (691). The scene is described in opulent extravagance, with the girl’s figure set in a room studded with gold, laying in a bed with the curtains suggestively thrown open. Fixed in her comatose state, the girl functions here as passive spectacle, ‘the most lovely sight,’ for the prince’s pleasure.

Feminist film and cultural criticism is similarly centrally concerned with the sexist dynamics that construct woman as passive spectacle for a determining male gaze, and the [End Page 5] ways in which they are played out and reproduced in the cinema (Mulvey). Sandra Lee Bartky elaborates that the scrutiny of the gaze functions as a disciplinary force which ensures that ‘[n]ormative femininity [comes] more and more to be centred on woman’s body…it’s presumed heterosexuality and its appearance’ (80). This gaze becomes so culturally pervasive that ‘the disciplinary power that inscribes femininity in the female body is everywhere and nowhere; the disciplinarian is everyone and yet no one in particular’ (74). Significantly, the girl is not only compelled to make herself available as spectacle for this gaze; she is also required to internalise it, resulting in self-surveillance and self-discipline practices that work to ensure the girl’s position as object (for example, in beauty product and diet discourses). This gaze therefore works as a profound disciplinary force, involved in the maintenance of gendered power relations in which girls and women not only present themselves as passive objects of the gaze, but also view and therefore define themselves through it.

Also central to this construction of girlhood as passivity is the lack of cultural acceptability around girls expressing their desires. Indeed, girlhood studies scholar Marnina Gonick writes that for a girl to be considered ‘good’ ‘usually means that a girl’s desire is left unspoken or spoken only in whispers,’ silencing ‘what has traditionally been socially and culturally forbidden to girls: anger, desire for power, and control over one’s life’ (64 -65). For Deborah Martin, this silencing of girls’ desire in cultural constructions of girlhood reflects ‘the requirements of patriarchal culture for the young girl to give up active and agentic desire and accept her status as object of desire’ (137). These are ‘highly restrictive and regulatory discourses’ that work to contain girlhood (Renold and Ringrose 314) and the possibilities of what it is acceptable to express from the subject position of teen girl. In the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale, it is both the spectacularization of the girl’s figure and her inability to direct the course of her own rite-of-passage that not only places her in the position of passive waiting, but also robs her of the opportunity to articulate her own desire.

Twilight provides a significant revision of the earlier text’s construction of feminine adolescent desire because it is central and authoritative, rather than marginalised and silenced. Bella reconceptualises both the elements of spectacle in her romance fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ sequences in ways that are resistant to the literary fairy tale’s construction of girlhood-as-passivity. Bella’s fantasy designs of her ‘prince’ Edward’s image contain spectacular and pretty elements, challenging the tale’s gendered visual economy that privileges the prince’s controlling masculine gaze and the heroine’s passive glamour. This spectacularization of Edward reverses the gendered dynamics of the tale, placing him in the position of ‘Beauty.’ In this reversal, Bella is able to claim a measure of agency and active looking that the heroine of Perrault and the Grimm tales could not. Bella creates a fantasy space in which she can reject the normative construction of femininity that demands that girls present themselves as desirable objects for a determining masculine gaze. These points of excess in the construction of the representation of romance not only challenge the structures designed to keep the heroine in a passive position; they also work to create new meanings in the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ romance, and create new possibilities for representing girlhood in potentially empowering ways.

Cinematic spectacle and prettiness contain the disruptive potential of excess, and Bella’s spectacular and pretty fantasy images of Edward reconfigure the gendered politics of the image and the gaze. Interestingly, it is this spectacular aesthetic of the Twilight films [End Page 6] that some scholars have labelled as potentially harmful and seductive to a teen girl audience.[5] Natalie Wilson, for example, writes that Twilight acts as a powerful ‘drug’ for unsuspecting female fans, who become ‘prisoners to its allure’ (6). Only those who maintain the ‘critical distance’ of ‘mocking’ and ‘resisting’ the films’ spectacular romantic excesses (6-7) can succeed in refusing the harmful ‘seductive message’ of fulfilment through true love and romance with a Prince Charming that Twilight narrativises (8). Margaret Kramar similarly laments, ‘[u]nfortunately, modern teenagers…may not be able to extricate themselves from Bella’s mind-set or question her underlying assumptions analytically’ (26). I challenge this suspicion and derision of spectacle in Twilight, finding that spectacle is one of its most subversive and critical elements in its representation of contemporary romance and girlhood.

Wilson and Kramar’s assertion that a productive reading of the text only emerges in the cold, distant manner that opposes and scorns the image not only participates in a sexist aesthetic hierarchy of suspicion and degradation of feminine spectacle and prizing of masculine austerity and distance, but also misses the rich potential for the spectacular and pretty teen screen image to be politically potent and invested with details that significantly disrupt the conservative narrative flow. Such a reading is productive for a feminist perspective on the cinematic text, for, as Rosalind Galt writes, a consideration of the pretty considers ‘how the image is gendered formally and how thematic iterations of gender in film can be read not just against women’s historical conditions, but against the gendered aesthetics of cinema itself’ (255). Engaging spectacle and the pretty in a reading of Twilight reveals the way in which the excesses of these elements not only undermine the conservative ideology of the narrative flow, but also work to create a new set of gendered romantic relations through the image and the gaze. In this new set of relations, Bella claims authorial control over the spectacular design of her fantasy image of Edward, providing her with an opportunity to claim and sustain a desiring gaze.

Bella’s fantasy sequences, which revise the gendered dynamics of the Perrault and Grimm ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tales primarily occur in Bella’s bedroom. In these romantic fantasies, Bella is able to construct a bedroom culture that is enabling and productive. Anita Harris suggests that bedroom culture can function as a kind of ‘retreat,’ which can productively be read as ‘an active choice on the part of young women refusing to participate in particular constructions of girlhood’ (133). Harris elaborates, ‘the scrutiny of young women remains…and it is this scrutiny that forces them into private places to reflect and resist’ (133). The bedroom culture that Bella authors and designs in the fantasy realm is indeed a resistant space, where the construction of girlhood as desirability without desire is thoroughly undermined. It is in this enabling and productive bedroom culture that Bella situates and authors fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenes. Instead of accepting her role as passive object for the scrutiny Harris describes, she chooses to design fantasy romance scenarios in which she can clearly articulate her desire and claim a desiring point of view.

Bella’s authorial control over the fantasy sequences is made clear in the beginning of one sequence in Twilight, which presents the scene on a black and white filmstrip that moves across the screen. The soundtrack is dominated by the clicking and whirring of the film running through a projection machine, further emphasising themes of production and projection. [End Page 7]

Black and white scene from Twilight that looks like an old-fashioned film strip with Edward lying on top of Bella on a bed with her face turned towards the viewer.

Figure 1 Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy is visualised on a black and white film reel, emphasising her role as ‘director’ and creator of the fantasy sequences

This establishes Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy – a romantic embrace between the reclining Bella and vampire Edward – as a kind of film within the film, a scene that she has constructed, written, directed, and projected. This scene unfolds according to Bella’s fantasy design, where she has carefully set out her longed-for objects within the mise-en-scene of her desire. This clearly establishes Bella’s authorial authority over the fantasy sequence. As the work of scholars like Gonick and Martin shows, ‘good’ girlhood is governed by an interdiction against girls expressing their own desire and claiming a desiring and authoritative point of view, in order for them to be securely placed in the role of object of desire and scrutiny. Bella’s fantasy sequences, however, create an alternative universe in which this construction of girlhood is thoroughly subverted. Bella authors scenarios and images of her own design, which not only subvert the scrutiny girls are placed under, but creates in its stead a clear position from which to enact a desiring gaze and to articulate her desire.

Twilight’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenes, which focus on Bella’s dreaming and fantasy images of a beautified Edward, dramatically halt narrative development, becoming points of both visual and temporal excess that rupture the logic of the earlier fairy tale text. In the Perrault and Grimm versions of the tale, the heroine’s sleep represents her complete vulnerability and passivity to the prince’s advances, gaze, and, in Basile’s version, the horrific rape. In Twilight, Bella creatively pursues new ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasies that halt the narrative of feminine acculturation and instead insistently focus on her enjoyment of gazing at Edward, significantly reversing the gender dynamics of the earlier text. In these bedroom scenes, there is an intense focus on sleep and dreaming, and a heavy-handed deployment of filmic techniques like slow motion, ultra-slow dissolves, and slowly spiralling camera movements. At the beginning of one of these scenes, Edward and Bella move towards one another and kiss at a painstakingly slow place. This lingering on the [End Page 8] incremental, and almost barely perceptible movement stops the narrative in its tracks. The soundtrack punctuates this languor with the couple’s slow, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations. In the following sequence of the scene, there is a transition of shots between a medium and close-up shot of Edward and Bella asleep. The ultra-slow dissolve settles on the scene like a fine mist.

Transitional camera shot showing Edward and Bella asleep on a bed in a medium shot with a faint overlay of the upcoming close-up on them so that a larger faint image of Edward's face is also apparent.

Figure 2 The ultra-slow dissolve and spiralling camera movements work together with the mise-en-scene to create a doubly-decorative image

As this dissolve occurs, the transition between images creates a decorative image in which the figures are decorated with superimposed golden firefly fairy lights and the embellished floral design of Bella’s bedspread. The camera spirals in on the two figures very slowly as this gradual transition between shots occurs, creating a dreamy, hypnotic slowing down and reduction of time. A decorative image is created both by the mise-en-scene’s decorative elements as well as the elaborate editing techniques, suspending narrative and focusing attention on Bella’s fantasy moment of enjoying Edward. This scene of Bella and Edward sleeping is protracted through the use of the ultra-slow dissolve and the dreamy spiralling movement of the camera. As opposed to the determining forces of logic, linearity, and progress, delay provides indeterminate time. Bella’s purposeful slowing-down of time in her fantasy sequences refuses to accommodate the roles and responsibilities of impending womanhood. While the heroine of the Perrault and Grimm versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is imprisoned and made vulnerable by her slumber, Bella’s fantasies of delay are ruled by her expressions of desire, her enjoyment of Edward – and the defiantly intense focus of her attention on these pleasures. This significantly contributes to Twilight’s revision of the passivity and helplessness embedded in the earlier versions of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale. Bella actively constructs these points of temporal and visual excess through her fantasies, significantly interjecting a time that is not ruled by these processes and expectations. This use of slow-motion techniques therefore performs a critical function because it troubles the [End Page 9] seemingly ‘natural’ smooth development of the conservative narrative’s progress towards Bella’s feminine acculturation, and also suggests a desire to rupture this progress and thus an ambivalence and dissatisfaction towards the feminine rite of passage itself.

In these fantasy moments, Bella is temporarily relieved of this construction of time that works to contain and control the progression of girlhood into an idealised womanhood (Lesko; Walkerdine). Girlhood studies scholar Valerie Walkerdine elaborates the specificity of time for feminine adolescence. She writes that girlhood is represented as a period of ‘preparation for the prince’ in both fairy tales and girls’ literature (97). The point of resolution, the prince’s arrival, is ‘attractive precisely because it is the getting and keeping of the man which in a very basic and crucial way establishes that the girl is “good enough”…It is because getting a man is identified as a central resolution to problems of female desire that it acts so powerfully’ (99). This temporality constructs passive progress towards idealised feminine adulthood, which continues to be at least in part defined by romantic ideologies, heterosexual partnership, and motherhood. Interestingly, though the Twilight series’ narrative works towards this resolution that Walkerdine describes, its forestalling techniques consistently frustrate, refuse, and defy its fulfilment. Both the seriality of the Twilight texts and the deployment of filmic techniques such as slow motion and the slow dissolve in the fantasy sequences work to disrupt linearity, defer progress, and challenge narrative cohesion. Bella’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy sequences not only challenge but also unravel these forces that seek to govern, define, and delimit ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ girlhood. The temporary unravelling of these borders allows the fantasy sequences to incorporate other, potentially disruptive iterations of girlhood.

The spectacular excess of Bella’s fabrication of Edward reconfigures the gendered norms of the gaze and desire. In her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy sequences, Bella is not coded as the ‘Beauty’: Edward, the glittering, perfectly groomed, alabaster-skinned eternal teenager is. In these scenes, and indeed throughout the film series, Edward’s figure is repeatedly associated with sparkles, lace, shimmering light, soft skin, and immaculately coiffed hair. In one ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fantasy scene in Twilight, Bella dreams that Edward is in her bedroom. Edward’s face is framed in extreme close-up. He is bathed in a golden, shimmering moonlight that shines in through the window. This moonlight shines through a lace curtain, which creates a dramatic dappled frill pattern of light and shade across Edward’s glowing skin. [End Page 10]

An extreme close-up showing part of Edward's forehead, his eyebrows, eyes, and nose with light reflecting off of them.

Figure 3 Edward’s figure is associated with the spectacular excess of moonlight, pattern and lace in Bella’s dream image

This fantasy moment associates Edward’s figure with these elements of visual and decorative spectacle. The supplemental nature of the decorative, its very gratuitousness, is troublesome, because it exceeds the requirements of the narrative and potentially disrupts its ideology.

These spectacular textural details disrupt the gendered politics that govern girlhood and the gaze. Laura Mulvey’s famous argument that the male figure onscreen cannot ‘bear the burden of objectification’ (13) is challenged in Twilight’s construction of Edward as an extravagantly shimmering spectacle. Spectacular cinematic images have political potential because they have the capacity, in their excess, to rub up against and potentially erode the conservative ideology that the narrative works to hold in place. Barbara Klinger’s work on Douglas Sirk’s melodramas argues that the deployment of an excessive or unreal mise-en-scene can work to ‘subvert the system [of representation] and its ideology from within’ (14). Jane Gaines, in her work on the textural excesses of costume in classical Hollywood cinema, similarly argues that these elements have the capacity to become a ‘dissonant detail’ (150) in the text that is resistant to, in excess of, and uncontained by the ‘conservative’ narrative flow. Kay Dickinson similarly writes that one cinematic component may ‘radically contradict’ another, and that such a contradiction of a conservative narrative or image may defy, challenge, and even overwhelm it (15). Dickinson sees this challenge at work in the text as potentially ‘not only an intrinsic property, but also…a political tool at work within both the object of analysis itself and its audience’s active perception’ (19). These moments of visual spectacle can therefore be seen as having political potency and potential as it not only challenges the normative ideology of the narrative, but also prompts a similarly unruly response from the spectator.

The spectacular aesthetic that Bella creates significantly challenges the immense scrutiny that girls and women are placed under – it enacts the ‘radical contradiction’ that [End Page 11] Dickinson argues for. This is significant because, as Susan Bordo argues, the ‘grip’ of controlling surveillance and scrutiny is one of contemporary culture’s ways of regulating, monitoring, and manipulating the female body ‘as an absolutely central strategy in the maintenance of power relations between the sexes’ (76-77). Currie et al. similarly show that a ‘dominant way to do girlhood’ is ‘the performance of…“emphasised femininity”: the practice of heterosexual femininity that is “oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men” and thus to reconstituting women’s subordination’ (94). Bella’s fantasy sequences challenge the visual structures that hold this subordination in place by designing a visual economy in which she can evade this scrutiny and instead take up an active desiring position in the context of her self-authored romantic fantasies.

In these fantasy moments of visual spectacle, the conservative trajectory of the narrative is significantly halted in its tracks by the iridescent glittering excess of Edward’s beautiful image and Bella’s enjoyment of that image. The spectacle of Edward’s glittering, luminous skin challenges the gendered politics of the image and the gaze. The first time Edward reveals his sparkling skin, these gendered politics of image and gaze are revised, creating a significant invitation for the heroine to enact a desiring look. Edward and Bella are in the forest, and Edward stands in the sunlight, revealing that it is the reaction of light and vampire skin that creates this glittering effect. Edward unbuttons his coat and shirt as he stands in this spotlight of sunshine, and his face and torso light up with the lustrous shimmer of thousands of tiny diamonds. The scene then cuts to Bella’s face in close-up as she admires Edward’s pretty sparkling display.

A close-up shot of Bella's open-mouthed face against a blurred green background.

Figure 4 Bella’s desiring gaze at Edward as he reveals his luminous sparkling body to her

Bella exclaims ‘you’re beautiful!’ as the camera cuts to her point of view and slowly pans up his torso, lingering on this spectacle. [End Page 12]

Figure5, A close-up shot showing Edward's torso from his waist to just below his neck. His shirt and jacket are open and the light is reflecting off of his skin.

A close-up shot showing Edward's torso from above the waist to just above his mouth. His shirt and jacket are open and the light is reflecting off of his skin.

Figure 5 and 6 The camera, aligned with Bella’s desiring gaze, slowly pans up Edward’s sparkling body in a close-up shot

This visual display of the male figure’s prettiness for the heroine perverts the sexist structures of the gaze which fix the female figure in the role of passive spectacle and assert the control of the male figure. It is Edward’s figure that is aligned with spectacle and the over-the-top design of glamorous decoration, and it is Bella who actively enjoys this display – indeed, she calls him ‘beautiful’. Such a perversion of gendered categories carves out a space for a new set of relations to emerge through the image. [End Page 13]

In this way, Bella’s construction of Edward as romantic object and spectacle significantly troubles and reconfigures the gendered politics of the image and the gendered gaze. This provides a challenge to sexist structures of looking, and works to create an opening for a new set of relations in which the heroine’s authorial perspective and desiring look determine the mise-en-scene. This fantasy visualisation is discordant and disruptive. Gaines writes that such visual and aesthetic disruption can create an ‘opening for considering how the spectacular…makes imaginative appeals’ to the spectator and constructs an ‘invitation to…fantasy’ (142-143). These scenes provide an invitation to engage in a fantasy where such a spectacular reconfiguration of gendered dynamics of image and gaze is possible, and where a teen girl gaze can be held as a sustained spectatorial position. Therefore, Bella’s spectacular designs carve out a fantasy space in which spectatorial identification with a desiring teen girl gaze is possible. Such an engagement in fantasy creates an ‘imaginative appeal,’ as Gaines suggests, to consider girlhood in new ways, compelling the spectator to identify with Bella’s challenging and subversive ways of doing girlhood.

Bella is therefore afforded a space in which she can both protest against normative structures of girlhood and romance scripts, then creatively innovate new and potentially empowering positions, expanding the terrain of what is possible for girlhood to include. An examination of fantasy and spectacle is therefore immensely important to a productive feminist reading of the Twilight film texts, as it is here that the most subversive and challenging moments of ‘doing girlhood’ arise. Spectacle in fantasy therefore provides not only an opportunity for rebellion against sexist everyday strictures, but also holds immense creative potential for the valuable work of reconfiguring and reimagining gendered relations in romance. An examination of teen screen fantasy may provide a critical space for examining the scope of both rebellion and innovation in the representation of teen rites of passage.

While many scholarly explorations of the Twilight texts have thoroughly examined Bella’s postfeminist and so-called retrograde journey into adult femininity through marriage and motherhood, few have adequately considered the resistant and unruly fantasy elements in the texts that subvert this conservative closure. As Gottschall et al. note, particular popular images and the ways in which they are engaged with by girls can both ‘rupture and reiterate ways of doing girlhood’ (35) and in this process ‘multiple meanings of girlhood seem to be embodied and enacted’ (39). In this way, Gottschall et al. argue that in any particular media or ‘real life’ example, it is possible for ‘markers of conventional girlhood [to be] enabled and constrained in complex ways’ (40). Therefore, through a feminist poststructuralist methodology, I have argued that while Twilight does present potentially conservative representations of girlhood and girls’ romantic rites of passage, it also simultaneously contains unruly and resistant elements that radically contradict this conservatism. Indeed, in fantasy, Bella is able to break down the visual economy that places girls in a position emphasised femininity, a scrutinised spectacle presented for a heterosexual male gaze, and reconfigures the gendered categories of the image, narrative closure, and the gaze. In this way Bella claims a subjective position and desiring gaze within this romance narrative.

Through alterations to the image and temporality of the tale, Bella carves out a new space in the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ narrative determined by her desire. As this paper has shown, this is significant, as cultural ideals of girlhood continue to hold that such expressions of [End Page 14] desire are ‘culturally forbidden to girls’ and that ‘a girl’s desire is left unspoken or spoken only in whispers’ (Gonick 64-5). If the category of ‘girlhood’ translates, as Gonick suggests, into the silencing of desire, then Bella’s fantasy designs that provide an articulation of her desire significantly alter this construction of girlhood and productively expand the potential for girls to claim powerful subjective positions in the contemporary romance narrative. This article has deployed the powerful methodology of feminist poststructuralism, which offers a dual optic to both interrogate and deconstruct the earlier text’s gender ideologies, while also stressing the opportunities for the heroine’s resistance and agency in the contemporary revision of the tale. These ruptures productively aggravate and destabilise the gender ideology at hand, creating new opportunities for representing the girl’s power and agency in the tale.

Bella’s fantasies provide a setting out of an alternative universe of new possibilities, positions, and objects of romantic desire made available for teen girl spectators. This setting out of the image of Edward and the access to a desiring gaze provides an invitation to spectatorial fantasy in which girlhood is not constrained by the everyday structures that govern and define it. The spectator is presented with the imaginative possibility of a desiring position for the teen girl to occupy, and this imaginative possibility is one that allows for a fantasy of doing girlhood differently, in potentially new and oppositional ways. Bella’s fantasy space is therefore not just meaningful within the text itself; it also proposes significant implications for spectatorial fantasy and imaginative possibilities that expand the terrains of girlhood, romance, and girl’s spectatorship. Bella’s fantasy ‘Sleeping Beauty’ scenarios, which move beyond the everyday structures that govern and contain girlhood, provide an invitation to spectatorial identification with an imaginary world in which those governing forces can be opposed and replaced with a girlhood that includes empowering elements such as the expression of authorial and creative control, desire, oppositional rebellion, ambivalence, and an authoritative point-of-view.

[1] The concept of ‘doing girlhood’ was proposed by girlhood studies scholars Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz, and drew from Judith Butler’s theorisation of ‘doing gender.’ Theorising ‘doing girlhood’ accounts for the expression of girls’ agency, explaining ‘what girls say and do to accomplish girlhood within limits’ (xvii).

[2] Recent girlhood studies scholarship has interrogated this particular aspect of how contemporary girlhood and girl’s sexuality is governed in patriarchal culture. See, for example, the work of Marnina Gonick and Deborah Martin.

[3] While there is not enough space in this paper to fully elaborate the Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic background to Cowie’s theorisation of fantasy, it is vital to explore her contention that fantasy is a setting out of possibilities, entry points, identifications, and desires.

[4] Feminist writers who have addressed these concerns in relation to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ include Marcia K. Lieberman, Francine Prose, Karen E. Rowe, and Jack Zipes.

[5] See Eva Chen’s study of how the romance genre has long been considered an ‘opiate for the masses’, a ‘dope’ for women that lulls them into an ‘illusory acceptance of the status quo’ (30). [End Page 15]

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